“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
“More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.”
My boys have spend countless hours paging through Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? Originally published in 1968, there’s still nothing really quite like it. (Here’s a nice appreciation of the book.)
The book is probably even more influential than most people realize. In the documentary Studs Terkel: Listening To America, Terkel’s editor, André Schiffrin, admits the children’s book is where he got the idea for Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. “I thought, you know this is something we need to do for grownups.”
Terkel made his oral history by going around America with his portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and conducting one-on-one interviews. Once the book was published, the original tapes were boxed up and put in his archives. Here’s a terrific 40-minute podcast featuring a few of the unboxed interviews. Terkel mostly edited himself out of the book, so it’s interesting to hear what he asks and how he asks it.
Sometimes when you’re reading Scarry’s book you can feel sort of wistful in spots for the days when, as Tim Kreider says, people actually did work with tangible results. (See the comic parodies “Busytown in the 21st century” and “BusinessTown!”) But Terkel’s book really gets to the heart of how people feel about their jobs. This interview with a “token woman” ad executive is an example:
Do I ever question what I’m selling? Oh, I would say all the time, of course. I don’t think what I do is essential or necessary, even that it prefers much of a service. You know, you’re saying to a lady because this oil comes from the bottom of the algae on the sea, you’re going to have a timeless face. That’s a crock of shit. I mean, I know that. It’s a part of my job, I do it.
I highly recommend both What Do People Do All Day? and Working, and I’d also head over to the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and Working in America site when you get a chance.