“Literary” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you picture the U.S. Department of Labor. (“Bureaucratic,” maybe.) Today, though, to celebrate its centennial year, the agency issued a thought-provoking list of 92 books that have some kind of connection to labor. That’s the only thing that connects the books, because otherwise they’re all over the map. The titles range from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and The Devil Wears Prada to Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town.
It’s part of a project called “Books that Shaped Work in America.” The list is guaranteed to get longer—probably a lot longer—because the Labor Dept. is inviting all comers to submit their own nominations at www.dol.gov/books/form.
Like any such list, the Labor Dept.’s is best thought of as a conversation-starter. A few selections are obvious choices, like Studs Terkel’s Working, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives. But The Federalist Papers? The Feminine Mystique? The Guinness Book of World Records? Leaves of Grass? I’m a Frog!? These books may have shaped America, but not exactly work in America.
As for the 92: My guess is that the people putting the list together were going for an even 100 to mark the department’s centennial but couldn’t come up with enough—even reaching as far afield as they did. The hint is that the press release cites “nearly 100″ works, not 92.
By the way, here’s my nominee: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. It’s guaranteed to make you rethink any idea you may have that white-collar work is more challenging or rewarding than puzzling out how to fix an old motorcycle.