The Books Briefing: The New Literature of Burnout

A memoir of life in Silicon Valley, a capitalist satire, a novel that envisions a better future, and more: Your weekly guide to the best in books

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Adam Maida / The Atlantic / Getty

The author Brontez Purnell’s short story “Early Retirement” focuses on Antonio, a struggling actor who is unfulfilled by his job. One night, Antonio drinks too much and blacks out in the middle of a performance, experiencing a “cool and complete dissociation onstage.” He is booted from the cast the next day.

Purnell’s story illustrates a common experience of disillusionment in modern-day work culture. As the professor Jeffrey Pfeffer explores in his book Dying for a Paycheck, burnout has become widespread. For Anna Wiener, who wrote the memoir Uncanny Valley about her time working in tech, the feeling crept up slowly. While she was initially allured by the industry’s promise of opportunity and a well-paying job in the aftermath of a recession, she eventually became disenchanted by the broader harm it caused. The writer Yun Ko-Eun’s satirical novel The Disaster Tourist follows a similarly jaded worker, Yona Ko, who works at a company that offers vacationers tours through disaster-ravaged areas. After being assaulted by her boss, she’s moved to a new team, which is charged with creating a man-made natural disaster to bump up business. No matter how unethical the work becomes, Yona continues with it, resigned to her role.

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, a novel by Kikuko Tsumura, makes the case against resignation. Feeling drained, the narrator quits her desk job and seeks an easy position—not a meaningful one. Yet it’s exactly this kind of job that brings her fulfillment. She finds her way to a better life through work—just not the kind of work she initially set out to do. By the end of “Early Retirement,” the actor Antonio also seems to have found serenity. After some time away from home working on a farm, he returns to his apartment and feels “that strange and foreign emotion—a stillness and a sense of peace.”

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

a man's leg's sticking out below theater curtains

TIMO LENZEN

Early Retirement: a short story

“From a distance, the hum of the highway sounded like waves crashing into land. In his bed, he would pull the covers over his head and imagine being in the ocean. Alone and at peace.”

📚 “Early Retirement,” by Brontez Purnell

burnt out worker

THEA TRAFF

Only your boss can cure your burnout

“Burnout is a problem created by the workplace, and changes to the workplace are the best way to fix it.”

📚 Dying for a Paycheck, by Jeffrey Pfeffer

postcard reading "Greetings from Silicon Valley"

GETTY

Why normal people want to work in Silicon Valley

“There are plenty of abuses of power and absurd anecdotes in Uncanny Valley—a manager forcing a job applicant to take the LSAT on the spot stands out—but the strangest thing about the book is how well it makes Silicon Valley look like a mirage that anybody could be taken in by.”

📚 Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiener

restaurant table

PETER MARLOW / MAGNUM

This is what happens when society ‘has to function’

“Yun [Ko-Eun]’s late-capitalist satire makes the case that the identity we find through work is almost always shaped by how we have been exploited—or how we have exploited others.”

📚 The Disaster Tourist, by Yun Ko-Eun

office worker holding a folder to her face

RAE RUSSEL / GETTY

The paradox of caring about ‘bullshit’ jobs

“One of the pleasures of reading [Kikuko] Tsumura is her focus ... on the care in ostensibly meaningless jobs. She treats boring, unextraordinary people in boring, unextraordinary jobs with an enchantment that many contemporary novels about work seem to actively avoid.”

📚 There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura
📚 Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber
📚 Temporary, by Hilary Leichter
📚 The New Me, by Halle Butler

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

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