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Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

3.42  ·  Rating Details ·  666 Ratings  ·  124 Reviews
You mean this place we go to five days a week has a history? Cubed reveals the unexplored yet surprising story of the places where most of the world's work—our work—gets done. From "Bartleby the Scrivener" to The Office, from the steno pool to the open-plan cubicle farm, Cubed is a fascinating, often funny, and sometimes disturbing anatomy of the white-collar world and how ...more
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published April 22nd 2014 by Doubleday (first published January 1st 2010)
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Glenn Russell
Mar 29, 2015 Glenn Russell rated it it was amazing

One of the dirty little secrets of the modern world is how many people's lives can be reduced to sitting behind a desk in an office, droning away their waking hours. This well-written book about office work is most insightful. Also, having had the nasty experience of office work myself as a young man, I offer the following warning about what can happen if you are an office worker.


For many years Neal Merman commuted back and forth to his place of work like the others. It was to an insura
Jan 23, 2014 Andrew rated it liked it
I feel pretty good about my own cubicle after reading this. Spacious. Permanent build. Personalization available.

But Cubed could have used a bit more focus. There are enough infobytes in here to hold my attention and the writing was easy. But the structure was weak. I couldn't tell if we were studying offices from historical documents, through film and movie analyis, or from architecture. I get that these are all necessary sources for a history of offices and obviously a lot of research went int
Oct 25, 2015 Sara rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was an enlightening view on the history of the cubicle! A history of the cubicle is also a history of politics and capitalism and corporate bureaucracy and the traditional roles between men and women, not to mention Dilbert, Office Space, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

So now I know why we are stuck in cubes, looking at computer screens, getting only moderate outside light, freezing our asses off, and pondering why such a mind numbing job requires an expensive college degree. You can
Muath Aziz
A book about the history and evolution of office (architecture), office workers (sociology), and work (business). "Nikil Saval does for offices what Foucault did for prisons and hospitals, transforming a seemingly static, purely functional, self-evident institution into a rich human story".


The Clerking Class:

We can all nowadays related to the common stereotype of office workers being bored and doing doing repetitive tasks, but before 1850s office workers (clerks specifically) were a small m
Ellen Chisa
Jan 07, 2015 Ellen Chisa rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. Many of the other reviews mention that they found it distracting to wander through various topics - but I loved it. I felt like hearing perspective from films, books, labor unions, architecture, and office culture really added to a holistic picture of modern offices.

The author does take a firm point of view in the book (rather than just aggregating data), but that didn't bother me at all.

I particularly enjoyed learning about some of the things I'd totally missed - I had no ide
Feb 02, 2015 Bookworm rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
An exceptionally tedious and academic read. This book seemed like a great potential read. I HATE the open office layout and cannot understand why so many companies use this. So it seemed like a book that had the history of cubicle and the office would be a great read.

I don't know what it is, but it strikes me as quite dry and academic. He starts with a history of the clerk and eventually branches out into various themes, such as what the future of the office might look like, with some "current"
Mar 11, 2015 Christopher rated it really liked it
Dubbed a "social history," Cubed doesn't strive after the science of sociology or history and instead takes a sort of long form journalistic tack on the evolution of the modern office. What's really fascinating is how Saval roots the history of design in the economic reality that shaped it: where businessmen sought power through dividing white from blue collar and dividing white collar employees among themselves - buildings and even whole districts designed to deepen "class unconsciousness" and ...more
Sep 10, 2016 Brad rated it it was amazing
Completely fascinating outlook at the development (and future obliteration?) of the office. There is a lot of smart synthesis of history, cultural studies, and examples from literature. Not just do we see the story of the creation of the office, but we are witness to the psychology of work and labor relations. I completely loved this book and look forward to discussing with co-workers what our best approach to making the most useful office space could and should be. Highly recommended!
Rick Goff
Apr 27, 2014 Rick Goff rated it really liked it
It was a pleasure to read Nikil Savan's book. Cubed is a survey of sources from architecture, business, academia and pop culture, organized to resemble a chronological history of the working environment provided to office workers. The tone of the book is collegial and a tad wry, as the topic expects, and the prose is substantial but not at all difficult.

If you're expecting that this title:subtitle will turn out to be ironic, well, it really isn't. This is not the Dilbert attitude in book form. T
Jake Losh
Cubed is a good, somewhat sprawling, social science book about offices, roughly in the same vein as Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. It approaches the subject from a lot of different angles: Architecture, business thought, social and cultural movements in and around the office, office furniture and the men and women who occupied the spaces. It spends considerable time on the influence of women on the office and on the workforce and also on labor movements, which was refreshing for me as I'm ...more
Steele Dimmock
May 02, 2014 Steele Dimmock rated it liked it
I was expecting the history of the office as we know it, what I got was mostly how the office revolutionised women in the workplace. With the office first liberating then oppressing women. Moving out of factories to being white collar secretaries and typist, on a male, blue-collar equivalent wage, only to become the office housewife/mistress; making coffees, getting the sandwiches, and reduced to weather overt sexual advances.
I found this was where the real meat in the narrative lay. The evoluti
Mar 10, 2015 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A book about offices and working there won't appeal to everyone, but I'm really glad I gave this a try. In equal parts it's about sociology and architecture, with some general history (e.g. the changing role of women) and economics thrown in for good measure. It sounds so mundane, but I found it fascinating. More than that, it helped me understand the context of my own professional lifetime, how some things I consider "normal" or just "the way the workplace works" to be relatively recent ...more
Mary Jo
Oct 11, 2015 Mary Jo rated it liked it
Very interesting, but dry telling of the evolution of the office environment from an architectural, cultural, and literary point of view. Must-read for anyone seeking a PhD in Organizational Development.
Jan 20, 2015 William rated it really liked it
Surprisingly interesting look at work, how we got where we are, and where we're possibly headed.
Peter Geyer
I read this because I was curious about what would be said and claimed. The author appears to be an online blogger of some kind and he writes well, occasionally very witty, although that fades towards the end of the book.

The book starts off with an interesting combination of C. Wright Mills' "White Collar", which I read in the 1970s sometime, and something from Herman Melville – Bartleby the Scrivener and these two selections provide a theme around the nature of the office, its development as a
Apr 03, 2015 kingshearte rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2015
This book was both fascinating and kind of depressing. In some ways, the current standard office setup is much more pleasant than the old-school counting houses sound – at least there’s usually a window somewhere in the vicinity. In other ways, it’s at least as bad. Everything tends to be pretty drab in colour, it’s full of distracting noise, and each worker doesn’t necessarily have much more of their own space than the old clerks did in those counting houses. And although there’s probably less ...more
Chris Walker
Nov 12, 2016 Chris Walker rated it really liked it
I liked this book because it weaves a blend of architectural and business history, popular culture (Dilbert is not forgotten), management theories, sociological and philosophical perspectives, and speculation about the future of work. I learnt a new word, "precariat", to describe the increasing number (class?) of people attempting to earn a living in the face of the "casualisation" of the workplace and the erosion of hard won workplace benefits and securities. This book mostly focuses on ...more
Oct 18, 2016 Andrew rated it it was amazing
I am teaching a course on business and economic history next semester and am thinking I will probably use this as one of my core books. I'm not sure how enthusiastic everyone will be about the rather detailed studies of office furniture and design, but the larger narrative about the transformation of white collar work is so solid that I think the book will teach very well.
Oct 29, 2016 Stephen rated it it was amazing
Super enjoyable to read
Mike Randrup
Nov 07, 2016 Mike Randrup rated it it was amazing
Fascinating read for a cube dweller like myself.
Taylor Peters
Dec 02, 2016 Taylor Peters rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audiobook
My only complaint about this book is that I wish it was twice as long / detailed.
Oct 20, 2016 Sarah rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
A (very) slow read for me, but interesting and informative nonetheless
Nathan Albright
May 23, 2016 Nathan Albright rated it liked it
Shelves: challenge
In what has likely been the case in every secret history since that of Procopius in the days of the Byzantine Empire, what is delivered by this secret history is not what is promised. This is particularly ironic in that the author, an expatriate of Southern Indian descent, continually delights in pointing out how the office has failed to meet up to its many utopian promises to workers and to society at large. This book seeks to provide a secret history of the workplace, but what it delivers is a ...more
May 11, 2014 Marks54 rated it liked it
This book attempts to provide a "secret history of the workplace". The author starts with the popularity of some recent movies and TV shows concerning office life and then motivates the book by the scarcity of efforts at providing a history of the space in which most people spend a good portion of their waking hours. The title in particular refers to the ubiquitous cubicles that have come to characterize office areas for so many people. The author is a journalist with particular interests in ...more
Jul 06, 2014 Rich rated it it was amazing
Cubed, by n+1 editor Nikil Saval, belies its title, which seems to promise no more than a history of individual workers’ immediate physical environment. Instead, by turns the book is history, sociology, and psychology, traversing the territories of clerical labor, manufacturing, design, architecture both Modernist and Post-Modern, social planning, sexual and office politics, class conflict, urban development, management, and corporate culture. Proceeding in chronological order from the clerking ...more
Oct 29, 2014 Jaclyn rated it it was amazing
Saval’s book begins with the rise of the clerk and the contrast between the small countinghouses where clerks felt as if they were in training to be managers. Yet when clerks moved into the increasingly ‘factory-like’ work in offices, the idea persisted that office workers could rise up the chain of command. This made offices distinctly different from manual laborers where there was no belief that manual laborers would become managers, therefore, they banded together, in unions, against the ...more
Paul Goble
Jun 26, 2014 Paul Goble rated it liked it
Cubed fills a need for a book covering the history of the office and of office work, but it falls short of being an authoritative source on the subject. It's a synthesis of the work of many office-work theorists and historians, illustrated with examples from diaries (for the more distant past) and movies (for more recent trends). As someone who has an intense interest in the interplay between architecture and daily life, I'm glad I took the time to read this book, but few are the people to whom ...more
Greg Brown
May 03, 2015 Greg Brown rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Cubed is impeccably well-written, humming along at a steady pace, yet occasionally tepid in the earlier portions. Originally excerpted in N+1 (where Saval's an editor), the centerpiece of the book is an account of the cubicle's birth: originally designed to create a greater sense of freedom for the worker, but slowly whittled down until it achieved the very opposite.

To explain how the original ideals turned into a drab result, Saval has to deploy a methodology that serves as the template for the
Mike Maurer
Mar 10, 2016 Mike Maurer rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, business
If you are interested in how we came to have the dreary offices we have, _Cubed_ provides the history. From the counting houses of old to cube farms to open plans, the author moves through phases of what defines an office. He uses movies and books of the various periods to describe what people approached life in an office. The points of reference help ground the thinking of the time.

The cubical comes out of the Herman Miller Action Office 2 concept from the 1960's. Action Office 1 actually had s
Aug 19, 2014 Emily rated it liked it
Recommends it for: officeworkers -- especially those striving to be intellectuals -- everywhere
Recommended to Emily by: The Millions, maybe, or Bookpage
Shelves: nonfiction
"The idea of a manly, ripped clerk has its contemporary counterpart in the health-crazed office workers of today, whose biceps stiffen and shift like packs through their shirtsleeves, though they rarely lift more than boxes of files of a planter of ferns at their workplace. The office -- and the fears of physical degradation it engendered -- might in fact have given birth to our modern idea of the gym."

"By connecting the eastern and western halves of the continent, [railroads, telegraphs and tel
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“skyscraper would remain one of the most peculiarly American of white-collar institutions, much more a symbol of the prowess, even ruthlessness, of American-style capitalism than what it equally was: an especially tall collection of boring offices.” 2 likes
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