The best books on work—the existential violence of it, and its potential to enlarge or diminish us as human beings

Daniel Orozco Author Of Orientation and Other Stories
By Daniel Orozco

Who am I?

The first story I ever wrote was set among warehouse pickers and stockers; the second, a bridge maintenance crew; the third and fifth, office workers, and the sixth, cops on the beat. I’m fascinated by the drama of work. For most people the workplace is a highly structured environment—you can’t wear what you want, you can’t say what you want, you can’t avoid that guy who drives you nuts. Who-You-Really-Are and Who-You-Are-At-Work are not always in harmony, and the tension between those two identities is richly revelatory. I live and write in Moscow, Idaho, and have taught creative writing at the University of Idaho, Stanford University, and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.


I wrote...

Orientation and Other Stories

By Daniel Orozco,

Book cover of Orientation and Other Stories

What is my book about?

Breakfast's boiled egg, the hum of fluorescent lights, the midmorning coffee break―daily routines keep the world running. But when people are pushed―a coworker's taunt, a face-to-face encounter with a suicide off a bridge―cracks appear, exposing alienation, casual cruelty, and above all a simultaneous hunger for and fear of the unknown. These stories take the reader through the hidden lives and moral philosophies of bridge painters, men housebound by obesity, office temps, and warehouse workers. A love affair blooms between two officers via the impartial entries of a police blotter; a new employee's first-day office tour reveals the other workers' most private thoughts and actions; during an earthquake, the consciousness of the entire state of California shakes free for examination.

The books I picked & why

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

By Studs Terkel,

Book cover of Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do

Why this book?

Firefighter, receptionist, janitor. Bank teller, jazz saxophonist, piano tuner. Meter reader, shipping clerk, washroom attendant, stockbroker, realtor, football coach. Accountant, stewardess, bag boy. Glue renderer, strip miner, priest. Most (but not all) of these jobs are still around, and while the way of work has undergone vast technological and economic change in the fifty years (!) since this book of interviews was published, the why of work has not. “The Job,” writes Terkel, “is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Terkel simply lets these people talk about what they do, and there is dignity and poetry in what they say.


The Mezzanine

By Nicholson Baker,

Book cover of The Mezzanine

Why this book?

This is the drama of a twenty-second escalator ride, during which the narrator, returning to the office from lunch, ponders his morning at work and his just-ended lunch hour, and reflects upon just about everything that he has observed or handled on this day (sunlight, shoelaces, staplers, doorknobs, carpet, rubber stamps, popcorn, and yes, escalators), and on every seemingly insignificant and fleeting human activity he has engaged in (tying his shoelace, signing a co-worker’s get-well card, replacing a wastepaper basket bag, avoiding another co-worker, ending a conversation). Though an office drone with a boring job, he remains undefeated, and engages the mundane and the routine around him with joy and renewal and wonder. A very funny and heartfelt book.


Roseanna: A Martin Beck Police Mystery

By Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo, Lois Roth (translator)

Book cover of Roseanna: A Martin Beck Police Mystery

Why this book?

One early summer afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from the mud of Lake Vättern, and Detective Inspector Martin Beck of the Swedish National Police is assigned to the case. Who was she? Who killed her? These questions remain unanswered for months and months (and months). Catching a killer, it seems, is a slog, and the routines of police work are captured here in all their tedium. And this is exactly why I love this book, as it compellingly dramatizes (to quote from Henning Mankell’s introduction) “the fundamental virtue of the police: patience.” There’s a heroism to these steadfast and rumpled men, and something thrilling about their dogged, often frustrating, yet ultimately successful pursuit of the truth.


Marcovaldo

By Italo Calvino, William Weaver (translator),

Book cover of Marcovaldo

Why this book?

During Italy’s post-WWII economic boom of the ‘50s, in an anonymous northern Italian city, an unskilled laborer named Marcovaldo struggles to support his wife and five children (or seven, or four—the number changes). In twenty tightly-plotted tales, we observe him stealing a trout, stealing a rabbit, getting lost in the fog, shoveling sidewalks, trying to fall asleep, trying to stay warm in the winter. Each “adventure” complicates absurdly, and some are more dire than others. Though on the brink of poverty, Marcovaldo hangs on, strives and fails, and strives anew, never losing his naive sense that things will turn out fine. The best comic writing is always tinged with the tragic, making you laugh and making you feel, and Calvino is a master.


CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella

By George Saunders,

Book cover of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella

Why this book?

All jobs are awful, all bosses are cruel, and all employees are crushed by the corporate machine. Some of them, the ones that narrate these stories, try to fight back, to maintain some semblance of dignity. Saunders’ vision of the workplace is satirical and unsparing—a fantastical nightmare of free-market capitalism. The humor is sharp and savage, and the compassion for these underdogs is deep and affecting.


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