Whenever you meet a new person, it only takes a few moments for the inevitable question to arise: “So, what do you do?”
The one thing, perhaps the most important thing, we want to know about each other is our work. Our work, for better or worse, defines us. And why not? We spend a third of each workday in the office, warehouse, factory, or other place of business. More often than not, we spend additional work time worrying, fretting, planning, or merely commuting. To a measurable degree, we are our jobs.
In the book world, we sometimes forget this. We want our heroes to be spies or detectives. We prefer to read about glamour and danger, about fame and fortune. Even Shakespeare populated his plays with royalty. Where are the everyday working-class folks?
Well, they are out there, though not always easy to find. In fact, even though these are among my favorite types of books, I am not certain if the genre has a name. I’ve heard it called “work memoirs” and “blue collar writing”. Whatever you call it, the genre includes the autobiographies of people who Get Things Done: plumbers, trucks drivers, waiters, maids, factory workers and the like.
But wait, I hear you ask, how can this stuff be interesting? First rule of writing: there are no boring topics, only boring writers. A gifted writer can make any topic worthwhile. But the topic of work is far from boring. Look around you, wherever you happen to be sitting as you read this, and you will see stuff, lots and lots of stuff. All of it had to be designed, manufactured, shipped and sold. The raw materials for all this stuff had to be acquired. Every screw, every scrap of wood, every single ingredient of our material culture has a story behind it. Where, in short, did all this stuff come from? And who made it happen?
That’s where the blue-collar writer steps into the picture. This writer tells you how the business of the everyday world is accomplished. There are no celebrities in this world. There are no CEOs of gigantic companies. No, these are people who get their hands dirty but also have the talent to give the best answers to “So, what do you do?”
Here is a small sample:
Rivethead by Ben Hamper. Hamper was an assembly line worker for General Motors. There is probably not a more accurate example of a dull job: the same repetitive task, over and over, day after day. Hamper makes this routine sound, well, riveting. While the book might be a little dated (much of the work is done by robots at this point), you will nonetheless learn much more about your car’s assembly than you might otherwise care to.
The Long Haul by Finn Murphy. Murphy reports on his long career as a specific sort of truck driver. Rather than transport freight, he moves households. This book is especially valuable when it comes to seeing things from the worker’s point of view. Sure, a family that is changing addresses is subject to all sorts of stresses and pressures. The driver of the moving van is also under pressure with a tight schedule and a thin profit margin.
Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica. Food work might be the hardest work of all. All the customers are hungry and impatient. They have expectations that are both demanding and arbitrary – the same table wants a well-done steak, a medium rare prime rib, and a vegetarian dish. Yikes! Standing between prima donna chefs and grumpy clients: the waiter. This book has been described as the Kitchen Confidential for servers, that book being a work memoir by the late Anthony Bordain before he was a celebrity chef.
Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. This is a classic of the work memoir genre, but with a footnote. Ehrenreich spent a few months working as a hotel maid, a Wal-Mart clerk, and a few other jobs. Then she wrote this book about her experiences. Basically, she is writing about the early days of our current part-time centered gig economy. As such, she is an important witness to American work life. But note: she is primarily a journalist here, a work tourist if you will. Her life did not depend on keeping and maintaining demanding yet low paying jobs.
Working by Studs Terkel. Terkel was a master interviewer and could get people to talk at length about anything. For this book, he got scores of everyday working folks to talk about their jobs. Here, in fact, is the books full title: Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Every sort of job, a few them not especially legal, is covered by this master reporter.
As I said earlier, this is one my favorite genres. As I also said, they are not especially easy to find. If you happen to know of any, stop by the library and offer the suggestion.