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Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

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Studs Terkel records the voices of America. Men and women from every walk of life talk to him, telling him of their likes and dislikes, fears, problems, and happinesses on the job. Once again, Terkel has created a rich and unique document that is as simple as conversation, but as subtle and heartfelt as the meaning of our lives.... In the first trade paperback edition of his national bestseller, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel presents "the real American experience" (Chicago Daily News) -- "a magnificent book . . .. A work of art. To read it is to hear America talking." (Boston Globe)

640 pages, Paperback

First published February 12, 1974

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About the author

Studs Terkel

86 books353 followers
Louis "Studs" Terkel was an American author, historian, actor, and broadcaster. He received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985 for "The Good War", and is best remembered for his oral histories of common Americans, and for hosting a long-running radio show in Chicago.

Terkel was acclaimed for his efforts to preserve American oral history. His 1985 book "The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two", which detailed ordinary peoples' accounts of the country's involvement in World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize. For "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression", Terkel assembled recollections of the Great Depression that spanned the socioeconomic spectrum, from Okies, through prison inmates, to the wealthy. His 1974 book, "Working" also was highly acclaimed. In 1995, he received the Chicago History Museum "Making History Award" for Distinction in Journalism and Communications. In 1997, Terkel was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Two years later, he received the George Polk Career Award in 1999.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 458 reviews
Profile Image for lola.
196 reviews77 followers
August 16, 2007
like any studs terkel book, you start off like "wow, everyone has a story" and then 400 pages later you're like "jesus, EVERYONE has a story."
Profile Image for Scott.
290 reviews295 followers
September 13, 2016
Have you ever imagined what being a mustachioed New York cop in the 70s was like? Or how it feels to labour as a Springsteen-esque steelworker? How about as a stonemason? If you’ve ever idly wondered about any of these things, or about sundry other ways that people make a living, you can’t pass Working up. This book earns its big reputation. Working will transport you, not just into the working lives of others, but into a different, and in many ways alien, era- the United States of the 1960s and 70s.

This is a phenomenal window into the lives of others- Turkel interviewed flight hostesses, steelworkers, company presidents, admen, autoworkers, the unemployed, janitors, gravediggers, community organisers, cops… the list goes on, and almost every interview is a winner. Everyone has a story, and in this book those stories are fascinating, inspiring and sometimes terribly sad. Each interview is presented with minimal interjection from Turkel, and for the most part they are unadorned. The character and voice of each person, with their verbal tics and slang, is pure on the page.

Beyond the individual human stories, this book is a sometimes shocking portal into what is by 2016 standards a grossly sexist and racist time. Forget Mad Men - this is the unvarnished sixties and seventies, and beyond the bell-bottoms and mustaches there is a great deal of ugliness.

A flight hostess details how if she got a blemish, or put on any weight she would be stood down from work (she also discusses being encouraged to smoke in her training, and specific lessons on how best to let a man light one’s cigarette!). Policemen discuss the racism they saw other cops displaying, their prejudices against and attacks on minorities and the poor, and sometimes against their own black colleagues. Other workers discuss the ways their jobs physically crushed them. The slow progress of workplace safety in this era was clearly too slow for many men and women whose backs gave out, whose health was broken on the wheel of work.

Some of this awfulness made me hopeful, considering how far we’ve come since then in workplace gender rights – my mother was fired from a cookie factory job when she became pregnant with me in 1980, something which could never happen today. In others it saddened me - the foundations for present day unresolved race issues are clearly visible, and precarious work is still as depressing and life-limiting for people in 2016 as it was decades ago.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. At the end of Working I felt like I had gotten to know fifty or sixty people, that I had shared their dreams, their fears and their frustrations. For a few hours I got to vividly live the lives of others, and really, what more can you ask of a book than that?
Profile Image for RandomAnthony.
394 reviews111 followers
June 24, 2013
My shittiest jobs, in order:

1) For one summer, at the Northeastern Illinois University library, I wrote tiny symbols on adhesive labels. Later I attached these labels to government documents.

2) Brown’s Chicken.

3. Mrs. Field’s Cookies.

I’ve often said that my primary motivation for attending college involved avoiding meaningless employment. I’m one of those people who grows near suicidal if I have to do rote tasks for the money necessary for food and shelter. I’m flat-out scared of a shitty job. In turn, Stud Terkel’s Working is, in my eyes, one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Nearly 700 pages of often moving, intense interviews with workers across all sectors and income levels, Working functions both as an important historical document and impetus for raising vital questions about how we spend our time on this planet.

Terkel stays largely out of the way of his interviewees; they seem surprised as they arrive at their own responses, as if they’ve not thought this deeply before about, say, selling cars, working in a factory, or leading a corporation. I want to learn more about Terkel’s process; did he remove most of his questions in the transcription process so the interviews seem more like cohesive monologues? Did he stay silent and let the subject talk without direction? Working is as much about each subject’s deep individuality as a broad survey of the 1970s-era American workforce. Subjects take pride in their jobs, hate their jobs, describe horrible, to me nearly unlivable conditions, and try to explain why they do what they do when they go to work. They describe bureaucratic idiocy and their positions on unions (Terkel pushes union talk hard) but return to what they get or fail to get from the hours they spend at work. One interviewee says, about her job, “you want it to be a million things that it’s not and you want to give it a million parts of yourself that nobody wants there. So you end up wrecking the curve or else settling down and conforming.” How unspeakably sad, our working lives, for so many generations, for so many centuries. How terrifying that we could live out our lives doing shit we hate. Yet most of the interviewees either put on a brave face or manage to retain their humanity even in difficult circumstances. I want my kids to read these books in high school so, even if they’re not quite ready for all the nuances, they learn how important joy and meaning are, I hope, to their careers.

Although this book’s forty years old and its terminology seems dated, Working is more than a set of interviews. It’s a profound exploration into how we spend a significant chunk of our lives. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,126 followers
October 22, 2017
They ask me if it’s true that when we bury somebody we dig ‘em out in four, five years and replace ‘em with another one. I tell ‘em no. When these people is buried, he’s buried here for life.

—Elmer Ruiz, Gravedigger

It is not really accurate to call Terkel the “author” of this book. The real authors are the 133 subjects of Terkel's interviews. Terkel serves as a stenographer and redactor, recording interviews and editing them into readable format. This is no mean feat, of course. The ability to get everyday people to open up and share their private thoughts is an uncommon skill. And considering how messy, faltering, and scatterbrained most ordinary speech is, rare talent is required to edit it into readable form while preserving the subject’s voice. Terkel is the ideal person for this task, able to ask probing but open-ended questions, creating interviews that follow the train of the subject’s thoughts without straying off topic. The result is a panoramic view of people and professions, encompassing nearly every imaginable attitude towards work, representing a wide swath of the public without reducing variation to a single narrative.

Books like this are especially valuable, considering how prone we are to taking work for granted. Work, as an institution, is a fairly recent phenomenon, the child of the Industrial Revolution. Back when the vast majority of the populace were farmers, “work” did not exist. Farmers work very hard, of course, but the rhythm of their work is dictated by the seasons; there are no set hours and no salary. The way we make our living is radically different from how our ancestors did; and yet work, nowadays, seems like the most natural thing in the world, more eternal and more important than marriage. This lack of scrutiny is especially striking, considering that our jobs dictate our social status, consume most of our time, and are usually the number one thing we complain about.

So what are the common themes of these interviews? One is boredom. Adam Smith famously proclaimed the economic benefits of the division of labor, which allows workers to be orders of magnitude more productive. But Smith was also wary of the dangers of this division:
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Well, as Terkel shows, this is not quite accurate. Even the workers who have worked their whole lives doing very repetitive work show themselves thoughtful and sometimes brilliant in their interviews. Mike Lefevre, an astonishingly articulate steelworker, says “It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all.” The real danger is not stupidity, but profound boredom, which is arguably worse. I know this from experience: though apparently harmless, boredom can be hellish, and can wreak serious harm on your psyche. And it is a ubiquitous malady, either from repetition or simple inactivity. Nora Watson, an editor in an advertising agency, says:
Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.

Connected to this boredom is a kind of brutish narrowness. Every person, even the most ordinary, is radically unique, with their own perspective, talents, and propensities. Jobs, on the other hand, often require only a very limited set of skills, forcing the worker to neglect a large part of their potential and to put aside their own priorities and preferences. Thus workers in this book often report feeling like “machines” or being “dehumanized,” such as Eric Nesterenko, a hockey player:
I know a lot of pro athletes have a capacity for a wider experience. But they wanted to become champions. They had to focus themselves on their one thing completely. His primary force when he becomes champion is his ego trip, his desire to excel, to be somebody special. To some degree, he must dehumanize himself.

Some workers feel dissatisfied because of the disconnect between their jobs and the rest of their lives. Kay Stepkin, director of bakery cooperative, says: “I see us living in a completely schizophrenic society. We live in one place, work in another place, and play in a third. You have to talk differently depending on who you’re talking to.” Other workers lament the separation of their work and the final product, such as Mike Lefevre: “It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it.” The common theme is social compartmentalization and the feeling of isolation that results, something that the philosopher John Lachs thinks is responsible for modern alienation.

It goes without saying that inequality—economic, social, political—is a major source of concern. Roberto Acuna, a farm worker, has this to say:
I began to see how everything was so wrong. When growers have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers. Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers. They can have land subsidies for the growers but they can’t have adequate unemployment compensation for the workers. They treat him like a farm implement. In fact, they treat their implements better and their domestic animals better. They have heat and insulated barns for the animals but the workers live in beat-up shacks with no heat at all.

Curiously, the bosses and elites on the other end of the differential, though more satisfied with their work, sometimes displayed alarmingly unhealthy or superficial mindsets:
My interest in motorcycles was for the money originally. I saw this was going to be a big field. Later, business becomes a game. Money is the kind of way you keep score. How else you gonna see yourself go up? If you’re successful in business, it means you’re making money. It gets to the point where you’ve done all the things you want to do. There’s nothing else you want to buy any more. You get a thrill out of seeing the business grow. Just building it bigger and bigger…

In America, where our jobs are one of the main determinants of our social standing, it is no surprise that status anxiety plays a big role in worker dissatisfactions. Dave Stribling, who works in an automobile service station, doesn't like telling people what he does:
What really gets you down is, you're at some place and you'll meet a person and strike up a conversation with 'em. Naturally, sometimes during that conversation he's going to ask about your occupation, what you do for a living. So this guy, he manages this, he manages that, see? When I tell him—and I've seen it happen lots of times—there's a kind of question mark in his head.

And then there is that universal blight of modernity, the lack of meaning. The feeling of being useless, of wasting your talents, of working solely for profit or a paycheck, plagued many of the subjects in this book. This was most heartrending when expressed by the older subjects. Steve Dubi, a steelworkers, says: “What have I done in my forty years of work? I led a useless life. Here I am almost sixty years old and I don’t have anything to show for it.” And here is Eddie Jaffe, a press agent: “I can’t relax. ‘Cause when you ask a guy who’s fifty-eight years old, 'What does a press agent do?' you force me to look back and see what a wasted life I’ve had. My hopes, my aspirations—what I did with them. What being a press agent does to you. What have I wound up with? Rooms full of clippings.”

The modern remedy for this feeling of meaninglessnes, to “follow your passion,” also left many feeling lost and confused. Here is Sharon Atkins, a receptionist: “I don’t know what else I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit this job. I really don’t know what talents I have. I’ve been fostered so long by school and didn’t have time to think about it.” And some, like the unforgettable Cathleen Moran, a hospital aide, are just annoyed by the idea: “I don’t know any nurse’s aid who likes it. You say, 'Boy, isn’t that rewarding that you’re doing something for humanity?' I say, 'Don’t give me that, it’s a bunch of baloney. I feel nothin’.' I like it because I can watch the ball games in the afternoon.”

By the end of this list, it is easy to see what Studs Terkel means with his opening lines: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.”

But Working is not totally bleak. There are many workers, often in very ordinary jobs, who report great satisfaction. This seemed to be associated with jobs that require a lot of social interaction. I experienced this myself, when I switched from a desk job to teaching. It is hard to feel isolated and useless when you’re constantly dealing with people. Dolores Dante, a waitress, enjoys the constant waves of new customers: “I have to be a waitress. How else can I learn about people? How else does the world come to me?”

Another obvious source of satisfaction is expertise. One of the most satisfied subjects in this book is Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker. She is satisfied with her work because she does it well. In the days before barcodes and digital cash registers, Babe memorized all the prices in the store: “I’m not ashamed that I wear a uniform and nurse’s shoes and that I got varicose veins. I’m makin’ an honest living. Whoever looks down on me, they’re lower than I am.”

But perhaps the biggest source of satisfaction is the feeling of helping others. This is what Jean Stanley, a cosmetics saleswoman, takes pleasure in, despite not considering her job very important: “You would have liked to do something more exciting and vital, something you felt was making a contribution. On the other hand, when you wait on these lonely old women and they leave with a smile and you feel you’ve lifted their day, even a little, well, it has its compensations.”

This book certainly shows its age. There are many professions which no longer exist, mostly due to automation. But as a portrait of work, as a modern institution, Terkel has given us something timeless.
Profile Image for Matthew.
35 reviews24 followers
December 28, 2008
This book was to some degree a political gesture when it was written--a radical reassessment of which lives are worth documenting and which voices worth being heard--but it would be a shame to read it that way.

What this book is is what life feels like during the hours you don't choose for yourself--as told by airline stewardesses, union bosses, factory workers, CEOs, car salesmen, whatever--and there's as much humanity in here as in any novel. It is also, incidentally, insanely useful source material for anyone writing a novel.

The interviews aren't transcribed straight, obviously; they're culled and edited expertly from longer conversations, and anyone who's conducted interviews knows how difficult it is to shape a coherent, legible story from a raw interview without losing the voice of the subject. Terkel was brilliant at it, gifted with the warmth and empathy and touch to elicit truly personal responses to the subjects' own working lives; he'll be very much missed, and still stands as a reminder of what good journalism can be.
Profile Image for Jim.
181 reviews34 followers
February 9, 2023
In the early 1970s, Studs Terkel interviewed over 100 people to ask them about their jobs. Their insights were always interesting, sometimes hilarious, and often amazing.

When I put the plate down, you don’t hear a sound. When I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right. When someone says, “How come you’re just a waitress?” I say, “Don’t you think you deserve being served by me?” - Dolores Dante, waitress

This is why I work. Every time I see a young guy walk by with a shirt and tie and dressed up real sharp, I’m lookin’ at my kid, you know? That’s it. - Mike Lefevre, steel mill worker

Immortality. Nothin’ in this world lasts forever, but did you know that stone - Bedford limestone, they claim - deteriorates one-sixteenth of an inch every hundred years? And it’s around four or five inches for a house. So that’s gettin’ awful close. - Carl Murray Bates, stone mason

You go into Riverside Church in New York and there’s no space between the pews to kneel. (Laughs.) If you try to kneel down in that church, you break your nose on the pew in front. A bunch of churches are like that. Who kneels down in that church? I’ll tell you who kneels. The man kneels who’s settin’ the toilets in the restrooms. He’s got to kneel, that’s part of the work. The man who nails the pews on the floor, he had to kneel down. … Any work, you kneel down - it’s a kind of worship. It’s part of the holiness of things, work, yes. Just like drawing breath is. It’s necessary. If you don’t breathe, you’re dead. It’s kind of a sacrament, too. - Nick Lindsay, carpenter

I read this because I thought it would be a great time capsule to see what regular life was like in 1974 (when my parents were just out of high school). It was. It also ended up being a beautifully written book about what it means to work, and what it means to a person to be employed.

Many of Terkel's original tapes have now been released:
Profile Image for Rana Khoury.
8 reviews3 followers
July 30, 2012
Studs Terkel opens Working with one of the most stirring sentences I have read of late: "This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence - to the spirit as well as to the body." And although Terkel's voice and narration are only present for the following 13 pages of the Introduction, giving way to 600 pages of the voices of others, the power of his intent resonates through to the back cover.

Those remaining 600 pages are direct transcriptions from the stories told to Terkel by his interviewees. Word for word. In this way, Terkel gave his subjects absolute agency. At times we sense his steering of the interview and deduce the questions that he has asked; the transcriptions are edited, whole paragraphs presumably left out. But overall the narratives are intact, and the subjects speak directly to us as readers. I found Terkel's method of empowering his subjects admirably progressive; I have little doubt that this was his intention.

Published in the early 1970s, Working captures and seals a moment in time. This moment bursts with voices and stories from workers across America. It covers the spectrum of America's classes and is not at all limited to the 'working class' that the title and even initial sentence may imply. Indeed, included in this moment are firemen and CEOs, teachers and PR agents, prostitutes, homemakers, flight attendants, professors, pharmacists, cab drivers and realty brokers. Much of what is captured is now an archival record of the time period, including the limited opportunities for women in the workplace and the harassment they encountered, the ongoing deindustrialization experienced by steelworkers whose jobs were being replaced by machines, the overt racism in law enforcement, and even now anachronistic work such as Bell Company phone operators.

But Working is powerful because of its timelessness. It is and always has been, as Terkel notes, our fate as human beings to work and to work endlessly. The experiences these workers recount and the emotions they they exude are personal but universal.
Profile Image for Katie.
90 reviews6 followers
March 15, 2016
I have an impractical desire to experience all the experiences. I could go on at great length about this, but Sylvia Plath says it best:

“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”

Thankfully, there are books like "Working". Its pages are windows into hundreds of other minds and lives, together creating a snapshot of working-class America in the early 1970s. The voices of farmers, prostitutes, athletes, black and white cops, car assemblers and so many others are coaxed out and edited into coherency by Studs Turkel. They offer details on how they spend their working hours, musings on their industries, and insights into the universal struggle for purpose.

Many people don't like their jobs. They want to feel bigger than a replaceable cog in the machine. This leads to many bleak and repetitive accounts, but it makes those who take pride in their work all the more refreshing, like the grocery store clerk who does a little dance as she checks out items, or the stonemason who daydreams about the technical challenges of building a house entirely of stone. Passion is infectious, even when it concerns cans of green beans and lumps of rock, and it's a reminder to find a way to let our souls shine through our work instead of being repressed by it.

I will never be a switchboard operator in 1972. But now I have a vague idea of what that experience was like, and I feel a little less limited.
Profile Image for Niki Haworth.
34 reviews2 followers
July 28, 2007
I think that in today's climate of reality TV and everyone trying to sell their story or seek their "15 minutes" that the interviews for this book couldn't have been done with the un-selfconsciousness with which they were done 30-plus years ago.
Profile Image for Scot Parker.
268 reviews50 followers
August 24, 2020
Well, I finally finished, almost 13 months after starting. This is a tough one to review because on one hand, works like this that present the perspectives and life experiences of people all throughout society are critically important - we all need to move outside our personal bubbles and learn about the experiences of others so that we can form a more just and equitable society and build empathy within ourselves. On the other hand, damn was this tedious for me. I put it down for weeks or months at a time and when I did read it I rarely read more than a couple of accounts at once. The book is a collection of interviews Terkel did with people from a vast array of different walks of life in the mid-20th century and the book reads as though for the most part Terkel just transcribed what those people said. Most people speak far differently than they would write; transcribed speech lacks polish, frequently contains language quirks and grammatical errors, and just plain isn't fun to read, in my opinion at least.

This is a good book to read on an important subject, although I'd have much preferred a version in which the peoples' accounts had been polished even a little bit. I rate the importance of learning about other people's life experiences and worldviews as 5 stars, but I give this book's ability to hold my attention and interest 1 star. I was torn about what rating to give this book overall and eventually just settled on splitting the difference.
Profile Image for Jeanne.
931 reviews63 followers
December 18, 2019
Anything you like to do isn’t tiresome. (Carl Murray Bates, stonemason, Kindle 809)

Working is a compendium of first-person narratives about, erm, work – the good, the bad, the ugly. Speakers range from 12 years of age to 75 (or more). They are male and female; White, Black, and Latin. Many are blue-collar workers, but some are also owners. Few are professionals – I don't remember any physicians, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists, or professors, although there are a couple of attorneys. No artists, but there are musicians; no authors, but some professional writers. There are people who are famous (e.g., Rip Torn, Steve Hamilton, and George Allen), but most are not. As Studs Turkle observed,

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us. (Kindle)

Many of the workers talked about the ways that work can destroy the spirit:

You’re not regarded. You’re just a number out there. Just like a prisoner. When you report off you tell ’em your badge number. A lotta people don’t know your name. They know you by your badge number. (Steve Dubi, steelworker, Kindle 12424)

I think a lot of places don’t want people to be people. I think they want you to almost be the machines they’re working with. They just want to dehumanize you. Just like when you walk in in the morning, you put the switch on and here you are: “I am a robot. This is what I do. Good morning. How are you? May I help you?” (Nancy Rogers, bank teller, Kindle 6313)

I’m tired. Because I’m not growing old gracefully. I resent the fact that I haven’t got the coordination that I had. I resent the fact that I can’t run as fast as I used to. I resent the fact that I get sleepy when I’m out at a night club. I resent it terribly. My wife is growing old gracefully but I’m not. (Richard Mann, installment dealer, Kindle 2824)

I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. (Nora Watson, writer for company publishing health literature, Kindle)

One contributing factor to the death of the spirit is the work environment: the noise, smells, dirt, and abuse (major and more trivial).

Neither the company nor the union gives a damn about us. As far as they’re concerned, we’re machines—as wretched as the cabs. (Lucky Miller, cab driver, Kindle 5026)

I began to see how everything was so wrong. When growers can have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers. Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers. They can have land subsidies for the growers but they can’t have adequate unemployment compensation for the workers. They treat him like a farm implement. (Roberto Acuna, organizer for United Farm Workers, Kindle 1082)

Perversely, while bad pay can starve workers, both literally and figuratively, good money corrupts:

Maybe in amateur days I would say, “Hold it. I thought that was good.” I may have said, “Play two, take it over.” I’m not gonna do that now and nobody’s gonna do it. When you were amateur, you were more open. Winning now is everything. (Jeanne Reynolds, tennis pro, Kindle 8695)

I began to see how everything was so wrong. When growers can have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers. Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers. They can have land subsidies for the growers but they can’t have adequate unemployment compensation for the workers. They treat him like a farm implement. (Roberta Victor, prostitute, Kindle 2217)

For me, Working is about the importance of meaning, challenge, and flow, the opportunity to get lost in something that is somewhat difficult and feels important. I imagine another Chicagoan, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (okay, not a native one), reading this tome and, as a result, deriving his ideas about flow (e.g., coming from the person's approach to work rather than the work itself).

I really feel work is gorgeous. It’s the only thing you can depend upon in life. You can’t depend on love. Oh, love is quite ephemeral. Work has a dignity you can count upon. Work has to be a game in order for it to be well done. You have to be able to play in it, to compete with yourself. You push yourself to your limits in order to enjoy it. There’s quite a wonderful rhythm you can find yourself involved in in the process of any kind of work. It can be waxing a floor or washing dishes . . . (Barbara Terwilliger, currently not working, although had been an actress, salesperson, performing market research, etc., Kindle 9705).

I’m a couple of days away, I’m very lonesome for this place. When I’m on a vacation, I can’t wait to go, but two or three days away, I start to get fidgety. I can’t stand around and do nothin’. I have to be busy at all times. I look forward to comin’ to work. It’s a great feelin’. I enjoy it somethin’ terrible. (Babe Secoli, checker at grocery, Kindle 6847)

It would be very tiring if I had to say, “Would you like a cocktail?” and say that over and over. So I come out different for my own enjoyment. I would say, “What’s exciting at the bar that I can offer?” I can’t say, “Do you want coffee?” Maybe I’ll say, “Are you in the mood for coffee?” Or, “The coffee sounds exciting.” Just rephrase it enough to make it interesting for me. That would make them take an interest. It becomes theatrical and I feel like Mata Hari and it intoxicates me. (Dolores Dante, waitress, Kindle 7028)

I’m not an engineer, but I have an idea and I kind of develop things and—(with an air of wonder)—they work. All night long I think about this place. I love my work. It isn’t the money. (Dave Bender, owner of factory manufacturing vending machine and coin machine parts, Kindle 9063)

If I’m working on some good Steinways, my day goes so fast I don’t even know where it’s gone. But if I’m working on an uninteresting instrument, just the time to tune it drags miserably. There’s something of a stimulus in good sound. (Eugene Russell, piano tuner, Kindle 7476)

When you do something you’re really turned on about, you’ll do it off-hours too. I put more of myself into it, acting like I’m a capable person. When you’re doing something you’re turned off on, you don’t use what talents you have. (Lilith Reynolds, government work, Kindle 8084)

I don’t want to retire. I’d be lost if I had to stay home and don’t see the public all day long. (Teddy Grodowski, elevator operator, Kindle 6153)

And when a person's values are woven through the work, it is no longer work:

I want to learn more. I’m hungry for knowledge. I want to do something. I’m searching for something. I don’t know what it is. (Jesusita Navarro, stay at home mother on welfare, Kindle 7277)

The gifts God has given me is to be a businessman. To be able to organize, to be able to sell, to be able to understand figures and what not. I want to use these gifts for the glory of God. I don’t want to do anything in my business life that would shame my Saviour. So I always look to guidance from the Bible on how the business should be run. (Steven Simonyi-Gindele, publisher of The Capitalist Reporter, Kindle 10206)

Working was written and published 45 years ago, in 1974, so these transcribed conversations are a rich oral history. Countercultural attitudes thread through many of the histories, as these workers attempt to create a life and work that work for them. The goal isn't the end, but the means.

Even today if I decided I could not be happy and personally fulfilled, I’d step out as a priest. The work of a priest is to bring life to people. If I don’t have that life inside me, I can’t give that life away. (Father Leonard Dubi, Catholic priest and activist, Kindle 12538)

Father Dubi's father (quoted very early in this review) knew the same thing, but felt trapped and unable to "step out." And, the juxtaposition of narratives from father and son enriches the larger story, as do some of the other juxtapositions, albeit more directly.

The fuckin’ world’s so fucked up, the country’s fucked up. But the firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy’s dying. You can’t get around that shit. That’s real. To me, that’s what I want to be. (Tom Patrick, formerly a police officer, but now a firefighter, Kindle 13231)

Sorry this was so long, but there were so many pearls in the book. I got absorbed in the process. :)
Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
970 reviews222 followers
August 21, 2014
Here's another one for my unfinished shelf, unfortunately. I've read about 250 pages, which is one-third of the way through, but with the end so far on the horizon, I'm ready to give up. Since the book is structured in individual interviews, can always pick up again some other time. It's not like it's a complete story, and I'm missing the ending.

The interviewees are regular Americans talking about what they do for a living. Most of them are griping, which I can relate to, but that may be part of why I'm having trouble getting through. 700 pages of it? On the other hand, almost every one of them has something interesting to say, and they really do give a picture not only of their jobs, but of the times. These interviews were held in the early 70's, so people are talking about Vietnam and NOT talking about the Internet. I'll bet some of these jobs don't even exist today.

The two I'll probably remember best are the film critic and one of the two cops. The film critic said, "Don't envy movie actors and screen and print writers for making a lot of money. Envy them because they're doing creative work that they love." That's a point that a bored office worker can relate to. The cop said that if cops earned points for the good they can do in the community, as opposed to just making arrests and giving out tickets, society would improve. Words of wisdom, but it's stuck between a whole lot of descriptions of drudgery. Still, I can't give this book less than a 3. It's an accurate picture of real life.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,994 reviews1,102 followers
May 12, 2015
My father died recently, just short of his 94th birthday. His wife has been gradually divesting herself of his possessions, among them many books, several of them by Studs.

Dad was a great fan of classical music and a bit of a leftist. In Chicago, that combination was best approximated by WFMT radio and its various magazines, within which Studs appeared regularly. A bit of a leftist himself, the McCarthy perseculations of the fifties threw him out of the networks and into the arms of "Chicago's fine arts station".

I grew up listening to WFMT because Dad played it from the time he awoke until he went to bed every day of the week. WFMT introduced me not only to classical music, but also to music of virtually every genre as well. The station had other things as well, including Studs' interviews of personalities and more ordinary people.

While I went away to college, professional and graduate schools, Dad apparently followed Studs around from book signing to book signing, purchasing his latest publications and having them inscribed. This one has "For Einar: Grace and Beauty and Joy. Take it easy but take it. Studs Terkel"--a rather long piece for an elderly man who'd been doing such things for hours.

Being a Terkel fan myself and much influenced by Dad's tastes, I read this collection of interviews during the winter break from college after it appeared on Dad's shelves.
Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,388 followers
November 1, 2008
Terkel was one of the only guys out there who could reliably restore my faith in the American people.

R.I.P. Studs.
Profile Image for Victory Wong.
133 reviews1 follower
June 10, 2009
Short little 1/2-4 page interviews with people about their jobs. There is the stockbroker that admits getting into the stocks is going to have you losing money, the housewife, the executive secretary (this was published n the 70s), the mason, hotel operator, newspaper carrier.... It's interesting esp because it also is a glimpse into 30 years ago but also just intersting for people to talk about their work. Not everyone's happy, not everyone's unhappy with their jobs but Stud Terkel does an admirable job of portraying each of them through text, their personalities, their hopes and fears are well defined, and that is what makes it most interesting. I have to admit that the short pieces was also appealing to me, I like to pick out a story or two read them, put it down, pick out another... He has created sections like "communications" etc which is better than blue collar white collar or by industry. There are certain jobs-- shoe stocker-- which entails getting a shoe order, finding all the shoes on the order and sending them out, that I never really thought about, then again I'm not sure they are around anymore. Only 4 stars so far as it can get a tad bit boring, the stock broker goes on for 5 or 6 pages and I don't think is necessary...

A bit depressing, good god doesn't anyone like what they do? And even when they do sometimes it's depressing the lives they lead and stuff. I think this is going to go out the door after I read it even if it's good as I just couldn't bear to read it again. I makes me want to sit down and cry for some of these poor folks. Not really but you know what I mean.
Profile Image for Emmkay.
1,167 reviews73 followers
October 9, 2020
What an amazing effort. Published in the early 1970s, this mammoth oral history is the product of Terkel's interviews with scores of Americans about their work. It's got everything in it - a whole collection of interviews of folks whose jobs revolve around the automobile (building, selling, driving), retirees, a housewife, a paperboy, a receptionist, factory workers, a hospital 'patient representative' (i.e. bill collector), teachers, a sex worker - everything!! I loved learning about people's working lives in all their variety and their recurring themes. It also covered a fascinating span of history and social change. It took a long time to read it, and like any oral history there is some repetitiveness, but it was 100% worth it.

Also, I learned that it was made into a musical in the 1970s, which was subsequently updated, including by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Very neat!
Profile Image for Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all).
1,949 reviews180 followers
March 4, 2017
I've wanted to read this book for a long time. I don't know if Terkel was the first to publish everyman interviews about lives from all walks of life from hookers to priests to craftsmen to steelworkers to TV producers, but it certainly has been a reference text. It was fascinating, in great part because of the time-capsule aspect. Life and work have changed out of all recognition in the past 45 years; the secretarial skills I worked so hard to acquire in those days are worth precisely nothing on the job market today, among other things. And yet so much hasn't changed at all. The glass ceiling is still firmly in place in many professions, "affirmative action" notwithstanding. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to really understand what's not being said--perhaps because the worker didn't feel safe saying it. So many people were in "dead-end jobs" during the optimistic seventies...and this was before the greedy eighties and nineties that created the crisis we are still dealing with today. These days where I live, a "dead-end job" is better than no job at all, and The Man, as we used to call bigwigs, is well aware of that. I had flashbacks of the "wildcat" trucker strikes of the late 60s and early 70s. Friends of the adults in my circle got badly hurt/killed, being pulled out of the cabs of their trucks when asleep on a layby. Anyone who doesn't "believe" in the mafia knows nothing of recent US history--Teamsters etc.

I was more interested in the stories the working stiff in factories or transportation or office work, than those of the upper echelons such as professional coaches and different types of brokers (real estate, stocks, what have you), perhaps because the latter talk so much organic fertiliser. The Wall Street broker in particular talks out of both sides of his face; one minute it's a mug's game, totally rigged--the next, he provides an important service in the world. Guess it depends whether or not he's making cash. The coach who spouts "motivational" BS such as "people with problems are dead, winners solve their own problems"...yeah, guy, that's why you've spent your life coaching a second-rate team, or playing a children's game on a third-rate team.

The nurse's aide chilled my blood; she may have been posing as tough-as-nails, but she may also have been a psychopath, truly unable to feel empathy toward anyone. However, my blood soon boiled when reading of the teacher with 30+ years experience in the profession who manages to correct all her papers in class time and forgets the school "absolutely, absolutely, absolutely" the moment she walks out the door at 3.30. I knew so many teachers like that as a student myself, who were walking in place and did no preparation for new lessons as they had been using the same stuff for decades. "I'm not a doctor...I don't believe you should study the family background...I don't want to hear it" she says, epitomising the attitudes of my own teachers who turned a blind eye to abuse, incest and the effects of alcoholic parents on a child's learning. To her, Hispanic elementary students getting coaching in their own language so they can learn English is "a sin," and they are "spoiling the nice little Jewish boy" in her class by mere contact with him. The Polish (white) families are "wonderful" and the two black families she has had contact with are "sweet" (ie docile) while "the Spanish" (by which she means Puerto Ricans) are "terrible and destructive." She admits to teaching by rote and giving no explanations because they're not smart enough to understand anyway. Well, maybe if they got someone who could actually teach....someone like the free school principal who has about 50 kids in his centre and gives all his free time to making it work.

Again the optimism of the seventies was brought forward in the stories of many who changed their lives entirely, left behind corporate jobs to strike out into something completely different, because they felt their work was dehumanising. We even read the ramblings of a "hippie"--ie dissatisfied young man who subconsciously (or maybe not) thinks he should be paid for...well, just "being." Nice work if you can get it.
Profile Image for David.
507 reviews35 followers
May 17, 2015
Great concept and lots of good stories but ultimately too long and too many pointless stories.

The last two stories (the Patrick brothers) were examples of the book’s high points. Each had interesting events to describe and their points of view were unique.

The book flopped when people offered their dull and unsubstantiated theories on the various reasons why things happened the way they did. Also, there were many instances of people bemoaning the lack of work ethic in today’s youth. (The book was published in 1974. 40+ years later and the technology is different but the complaints are the same. The complaints about police brutality against black males was another reminder that things can remain static over long periods of time.) The steady dose of job complaints got tiring very quickly.

Sometimes the author told the stories of various employees from the same workplace (the Ford automotive plant comes to mind) who worked at unequal levels and who recalled the same events quite differently. Some people (general statement about the book, not the Ford employees) described their dishonesty and malfeasance with surprising vigor. An afterword with repercussions would have been an interesting addition.

I don’t recommend reading the kindle version of this book, stick with an actual book if you’re going to read it. You can look ahead and pace yourself better with a physical book. Also, I probably would have enjoyed the book more if I had read it in small bits over a longer period of time while reading other books along the way.
Profile Image for C. Scott.
618 reviews11 followers
May 2, 2016
A massive book, I'm so glad I was finally able to finish it. An excellent book, this is the third I've read by Studs Terkel - the others "Hard Times" and "The Good War" were equally great.

We all go through life making assumptions about others. I guess it's natural to use shorthand and make judgements about people based on what they do. This book does more than anything else I know to turn those assumptions on their heads. Terkel talked to people from every walk of life - CEOs and high paid executives down the social ladder to garbage men and janitors. He talks to nutty people, practical sorts, lazy people, hard workers, the whole spectrum is represented. What shines through more than anything else is our shared humanity.

It broke my heart reading about the maintenance man or secretary who didn't want to tell people what they did because they were immediately looked down on for how they made their living. All of these people are able to express their emotions and discuss not only what they do for a living but what it means to them.

This book is a wake up call not to judge people by what they do. We're all trying to get through life any way we can. Just because your job may have more prestige doesn't make you a better person.
Profile Image for Chad.
146 reviews
October 10, 2017
"We read to know we are not alone." -C.S. Lewis

I originally read "Working" haphazardly, looking for occupations or voices that interested me, but about a year ago I decided to read it cover-to-cover. Three things come to mind when I reflect on why it made such an impact on me:

(1) It's served as a tool for personal reflection. "Working" has been the book on my nightstand for over a year: when I'm winding down after a long day, mulling over all the ways I've succeeded and failed, lived up to expectations or disappointed people, I've read these stories of ordinary people with the same (or different) petty frustrations and triumphs in very similar (or different) circumstances. It's comforting, as Lewis observes, to know we are not alone.

(2) It's deepened my empathy for people who are totally unlike me, which is impressive considering that many of these workers live much different lives than my own AND were living well before I was born.

(3) It's deepened my appreciation for oral history, particularly the way someone like Terkel has been preserved so many unique voices from the past.
Profile Image for Corey.
9 reviews2 followers
November 24, 2008
A stunning look at America in the 1970's. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry at some of the depictions of these hard-working people. Mostly I just wanted to quit my job.

It would be interesting to see what Americans would say to the same questions Studs posed in today's working world (although nobody could replace the way he asked them). I would suspect that fewer would complain about the toll work placed on their bodies (we probably could use a little more of that to tell the truth). But I imagine the frustration and sense of being trapped or having made the wrong decisions remain.

It was a fascinating read even though some of the topics are a little dated. I think oral histories and surveys of the "average" citizen are among the most fascinating reads in any period of American history. Having the expert asking the questions and drawing out the answers makes the read even more enjoyable.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,945 reviews28 followers
January 1, 2013
I'm a fan of both Studs Terkel and of oral histories, so this book was a win-win for me. Terkel interviews people from all walks of life about the work that they do and how they feel about their occupations. And the interviews range from the humorous to the truly sad. It's apparent in these short oral histories that Terkel isn't making judgments about certain occupations. Instead, he seems genuinely interested in what people do and how they perceive their jobs. However, the fact that this book was published in the early 1970s is very apparent--because of the political overtones and because of the pro-union sentiments that pervade the histories. Americans, as a rule,don't seem to value work. We value certain occupations and make judgments on people based on their occupations both positively and negatively. This book pulls back the veil on such prejudices and lets people speak for themselves about their field of employment.
Profile Image for John Stepper.
501 reviews20 followers
January 22, 2018
45 years have passed since he did these interviews, and the world seems to have changed in so many fundamental ways. Yet the themes expressed in these interviews about what people need from work and life seem timeless: respect, recognition, appreciation, purpose, connection.

Anyone wanting to make work (and life) better would benefit from reading “Working”.
Profile Image for Charles.
23 reviews
February 10, 2023
Work sits in a strange place among today's conversations. For some, like the technologist, it is something to be automated and done away with. For the new brand of policy entrepeneurs in DC, it is instrumentalized into broader concerns of economic security and international dependence.

Terkel's ethnography of the everyday worker in the 1980's elides such simple narratives. The stories of work recorded in this book convey the grinding nature of manual work in factories, the racial tensions that stretched into every job and home, and the resentment of being disrespected daily as a worker. But these stories also show America during a time of growing unionization, which gave workers a greater voice and provided the basic dignities of work, securing many of the protections we take for granted today. There are also many jobs in this book that no longer exist today and yet the world still spins on. For me, "Working" captures the essence and form of reading: to step, briefly, into someone else's world and time and ground ourselves in the stories of others.
Profile Image for Leslie.
2,608 reviews203 followers
September 1, 2018
While the music fit into the workers' anecdotes well, I found that my attention wandered. This adaptation did make me interested in reading Terkel's book someday though.
49 reviews
February 3, 2021
I found it very interesting to read what workers had to say about their work - a huge variety - 762 pages worth. It would be even more interesting to read an updated version of the same book.

Many of those interviewed lived an worked in the Chicago area, so that added interest for me. The time period was the early 70's and this brought back a lot of the culture of that time to my memory. In many ways, it was a different world.
Profile Image for Dara Salley.
381 reviews4 followers
September 12, 2018
This was an important book when it was published in the 70s and it's just as relevant now. It's fun to see the way that things have improved over the past 50 years and the way some things stay the same. Airline attendants are no longer weighed by the airlines and put on probation if they are too fat! I would like to hope that some of the more hazardous jobs profiled in "Working" have been made safer for the workers. People in the late 70s were beginning to feel the encroachment of the computerization and corporatization of their jobs and they did not like it. Fast-forward to 2018 and those trends have become ubiquitous to the point of madness. What will the next 50 years bring? Will things continue along the same path or is there a course-correction in the future? As long as someone is making money off of someone else's labor the yearning, ennui and desperation of Studs Terkel's interview subjects will continue to echo down the ages.
39 reviews4 followers
September 19, 2013
I really enjoyed this book. I read it very slowly, bits at a time, all out of order. I purchased it the week I quit my job at the bookstore, with my employee discount, and got a slow start on it. As the months drifted by, and I started a new job that I enjoyed much more, I kept coming back, a few installments at a time. And then the last couple of weeks I've basically been walking around the apartment with it like a security blanket and I think it's become one of my favorite books.

That would horrify five-year old me. "I'll grow up to be the most boring person ever. One of my favorite books will be the most grown-up book imaginable: a big fat depressing boring book about work." (Growing up horrified me when I was small.I can remember looking up at my parents' bookshelves and thinking, "Man. Why would anybody ever want to read that?" And this book is just like that. But it's great, tiny David! It's wonderful hearing from so many different people, seeing the weird tapestry of humanity, what you agree with, what you don't, the good things people say and think and believe and the bad.

I'm not at all familiar with oral history. Previously I've read one on the Spanish Civil War, but that's it. I think Terkel does well, although clearly most of his work is invisible.

Some bits that stuck with me:

1.) Frank Decker, talking about the '67 truck drivers' wildcat strike, which strikes a bunch of nerves for me: the little-kid thing again, loving big trucks, the teenage loner thing, with the romance of loneliness, and then the incredibly annoying labor militant thing, fighting the bosses, the government, and the union. Also, reading this bit, I realized that a professor had lied to me: he'd covered the '67 strike as a journalist, but told me that someone shot a scab truck in New Jersey and it exploded. Decker's version has the truck being dynamited. HAH. Myth busted. Also, property damage only, still technically nonviolent, HA.

2.) Anthony Ruggiero, the casually dreadful, arguably reluctant industrial investigator. Because he lives such a weird life. He's a spy, and a private detective, and Buck Henderson, Union Buster . . . Decker's and Ruggiero's accounts, and a lot of others from this book, would make fantastic movies.

3.) Rose Hoffman, because she's such an awful person, but still trying, still given space to make her own points and to dig the hole deeper. The fantastic way she romanticizes Polish immigrants (as opposed to, mainly, Puerto Rican ones) is crazy if you've heard as many Polack jokes as I have.

4.) Barbara Terwilliger, who is at once so insightful and so blind. This section should be required reading for philosophy-of-work stuff . . . although I guess the whole book's like that. She spends the whole time discussing how her job that she's no longer doing (that involved finding jobs for people) was horrible, but at the same time she talks about how now that she doesn't have to work she feels an absence. Clearly it's a complaint of privilege, but still, "A great poet can make love and idleness fructify into poetry, a beautiful occupation." What a fascinating person.
Profile Image for Colin MacDonald.
139 reviews3 followers
July 19, 2018
This is great. It's the grown-up version of all those Richard Scarry books I loved as a kid, like What do people do all day? It's interviews with over a hundred people from all walks of life about exactly that.
The interviews are from nearly fifty years ago, so some things have changed, but less than you'd expect. Most of the jobs are still around in some form. Social attitudes and race relations have changed; maybe not as much as we'd like, but it's oddly encouraging to see that they really were worse back then.
I think it's really valuable to get this sort of insight into what life is like for other people, especially in our increasingly self-sorting country. Almost all of my friends have been to college. Many of them work in tech in some form. We all have comfortable, white-collar jobs. It's good to be reminded that there are still a lot of welders, truckers, retail salespeople, hair stylists, and cab drivers out there (along with everyone else from jazz musicians to corporate executives). And that behind all those jobs, those functions they perform for the economy, are actual human beings.
The interviews bring up a lot of deep questions about how we live our lives and the choices we make. What makes us happy. What gives our lives meaning and dignity. How important that is to us. How we strike the balance between work and life. When work is just a job, when it gives us a sense of value and purpose, and when it completely takes over. Reading them gives me plenty both to reflect on and to be grateful for.
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