The Ways We Make a Living

Work isn’t everything, but for better or for worse, our lives orbit around it: Your weekly guide to the best in books

An abstract composition of shapes. Some of the shapes contain photos of a worker at a desk and books.
Michael Brennan / Getty; The Atlantic

When they write, authors can choose to imagine fantastical worlds, or to follow the lives of celebrities or presidents. Describing the banality of the day-to-day—our relationships, the spaces we inhabit, and our jobs—can seem less glamorous and more difficult. But there’s plenty of fascinating territory to explore in writing about the workplace—including the blurry line, especially in modern times, between our personal lives and our professional ones.

In fiction, some authors find inventive ways to highlight the alienation frequently found in the contemporary office. Olga Ravn’s The Employees and Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory describe two fantastical workplaces, one on a spacecraft, one in a futuristic factory. In spite of these advanced-seeming settings, their employees still feel isolated and detached from their work. Overidentifying with our work may not be the solution either. Job security can be uncertain, and even losing a position we don’t love can be destabilizing, like in Imogen Binnie’s Nevada; the protagonist, the “charismatic screw-up” Maria Griffiths, makes a fateful, disastrous trip west after being fired from her bookselling gig. But people can find joy in what they do, even if it appears mind-numbing—like the narrator in Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, who changes her relationship to employment by taking a series of temporary but necessary positions.

In Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, Angela Garbes takes us outside of a traditional understanding of “the workplace” and focuses on overlooked domestic laborers: mothers and caregivers performing tasks crucial for the function of our economy from inside of the home. But solidarity among workers can lead to opportunities for growth, change, and new relationships. Garbes mentions the 1975 Women’s Strike in Iceland, which set a precedent for future protections for women in the workforce. And Kim Kelly, the author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, sees unions as a way to bring workers from different backgrounds and experiences together, reminding employees that they are not alone after all.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

A disappointed woman with a warped bookshelf laid over her face, surrounded by hypnotic circles.

Richard Vergez

The parasitic workplace
“The factory is inscrutable yet material, its very scale deflating workers’ sense of worth. Yoshiko’s brother sees no horizon to his work, and, by extension, to his life. If nothing he does matters to the company or to customers, why should it matter to him?”

An eye surrounded by stacks of books.

The Atlantic; Getty

The cult classic that captures the grind of dead-end jobs
Nevada is both a good and an important book for precisely that reason: Binnie lets readers look squarely at the world Maria inhabits, complete with the limitations of a grinding, ill-paid job. It’s easy, once we’ve done that, to understand how badly she needs something more.”

Black and white photo of a person working at a cluttered desk

Rae Russel / Getty

The paradox of caring about “bullshit” jobs
“The unsettling genius of Tsumura’s narrator is that despite her string of tedious jobs, she comes closest to describing what a good life may actually look like: spending time searching for chestnuts and breadfruit in the forest, taking long walks around the city, gently drawing out souls who have squirreled themselves away from the world, finding the strange in the everyday.”

A kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes

Bill Owens / Gallery Stock

The devaluation of care work is by design
“If we reframe domestic work as essential labor and insist upon its centrality in a global labor movement, we create opportunities for solidarity among caregivers, mothers, and all workers. Unity can exist across gender identities, international borders, and disparate industries, rooted in any work that exploits an invisible labor force.”

Christian Smalls leading a rally for the Amazon Labor Union with Bernie Sanders

Kena Betancur / AFP / Getty

What the labor movement can learn from its past
“There’s a very long history of unions not standing up for everyone and excluding or discriminating against certain workers. I think it’s important that if these questions and these challenges are being thrown our way—toward the organized-labor movement—that we’re ready to answer them honestly and be frank about the issues within the movement and about the shortcomings, but also be clear about the massive benefits that come from a union contract and a union job.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Elise Hannum. The book she just finished is Funny You Should Ask, by Elissa Sussman.

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