Book Review: Working

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel (Pantheon Books, 1974).

Studs Terkel opens Working with one of the most stirring sentences I have ever read: “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 janitors. 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.