The best books to read when your job is ruining your life

Why am I passionate about this?

At one point in my life, I took Ph.D. classes in the morning, taught philosophy in the afternoon, and tended bar at night. I was always working, and money was tight. Then, one day at a faculty meeting, my colleagues and I discussed developing an appealing new course. I suggested one on the philosophy of work and ended up teaching it and writing my dissertation on work and moral values. I loved teaching the class to the part-time students. They came to class straight from work and shared their experiences. Those students taught me more about work than any book in the library. Years later, I wrote The Working Life.


I wrote...

The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work

By Joanne B. Ciulla,

Book cover of The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work

What is my book about?

Philosopher Joanne B. Ciulla examines why people let their jobs take over their lives. Technology was supposed to free us from work, but instead, it tethered us to the office. People still look to work for self-fulfillment, community, and identity, but these things are increasingly difficult to find in today's workplace. Gone is the social contract where employees and employers shared a sense of mutual loyalty, yet many of us sacrifice personal time for jobs that we could lose at the drop of a stock price. Tracing the evolution of the meaning of work from curse to calling, Ciulla asks questions that we often willfully ignore at our peril. Provocative and entertaining, The Working Life challenges us to ponder the meaning of work and life.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Joanne B. Ciulla Why did I love this book?

This book inspired me to write a book about the meaning of work. It introduced me to how some people find meaning or at least interest in their work, and others find work a daily humiliation. Terkel is a brilliant storyteller who interviews everyone from the people who park your car to architects and politicians. They don’t all have meaningful work, but they all seek to be treated with dignity on the job.

By Studs Terkel,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Working as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Perhaps Studs Terkel's best-known book, Working is a compelling, fascinating look at jobs and the people who do them. Consisting of over one hundred interviews conducted with everyone from gravediggers to studio heads, this book provides a timeless snapshot of people's feelings about their working lives, as well as a relevant and lasting look at how work fits into American life.



Book cover of The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia

Joanne B. Ciulla Why did I love this book?

This is a wise and witty philosophical reflection on the meaning of games and life. Suits asks: If we didn’t ever have to work again, would we have to replace work with things like the housebuilding game or the lawyer game? If so, would the game about work satisfy the need to work?

By Bernard Suits, Frank Newfeld (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Grasshopper as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the mid twentieth century the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously asserted that games are indefinable; there are no common threads that link them all. "Nonsense," said the sensible Bernard Suits: "playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." The short book Suits wrote demonstrating precisely that is as playful as it is insightful, as stimulating as it is delightful. Through the jocular voice of Aesop's Grasshopper, a "shiftless but thoughtful practitioner of applied entomology," Suits not only argues that games can be meaningfully defined; he also suggests that playing games is a central part of the ideal…


Book cover of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

Joanne B. Ciulla Why did I love this book?

I remember reading this book on a train, and by the time I reached my stop, I felt utterly drained. Ehrenreich took on the lowest-paid jobs and discovered they did not pay her enough to live. She slept in her car a few times and eventually had to get a second job to pay for cheap rooms. What was most surprising is that poor working people ultimately spend more money on food and lodging than people who earn a living wage.

By Barbara Ehrenreich,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Nickel and Dimed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beautifully repackaged as part of the Picador Modern Classics Series, this special edition is small enough to fit in your pocket and bold enough to stand out on your bookshelf.

A publishing phenomenon when first published, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is a revelatory undercover investigation into life and survival in low-wage America, an increasingly urgent topic that continues to resonate.

Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job―any job―can be the ticket…


Book cover of The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling

Joanne B. Ciulla Why did I love this book?

This book explains why, even though you don’t do physical labor, you’re exhausted at the end of the workday. It’s because jobs that involve interacting with the public require emotional labor. You must act your part and put on your work face. Hochschild’s research examines the toll that things like having to smile and being nice to obnoxious, insulting people can take on a person.

By Arlie Russell Hochschild,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Managed Heart as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In private life, we try to induce or suppress love, envy, and anger through deep acting or "emotion work", just as we manage our outer expressions of feeling through surface acting. In trying to bridge a gap between what we feel and what we "ought" to feel, we take guidance from "feeling rules" about what is owing to others in a given situation. Based on our private mutual understandings of feeling rules, we make a "gift exchange" of acts of emotion management. We bow to each other not simply from the waist, but from the heart. But what occurs when…


Book cover of Man’s Search for Meaning

Joanne B. Ciulla Why did I love this book?

This is a great book to read if you are fed up with work but can’t up and leave your job. Frankel tells the story of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp and how it is possible to find meaning in the little things of daily life. The book offers hope because it places finding meaning in your hands and has a way of making your problems feel small.

By Viktor Frankl,

Why should I read it?

41 authors picked Man’s Search for Meaning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the outstanding classics to emerge from the Holocaust, Man's Search for Meaning is Viktor Frankl's story of his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. Today, this remarkable tribute to hope offers us an avenue to finding greater meaning and purpose in our own lives.


You might also like...

Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in poverty, utopian, and the meaning of life?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about poverty, utopian, and the meaning of life.

Poverty Explore 90 books about poverty
Utopian Explore 66 books about utopian
The Meaning Of Life Explore 48 books about the meaning of life