When we started the Books that Shaped Work in America project, we said that the list, like work in America, was constantly evolving, and that the list would grow based on suggestions from “the public.”
One of my all-time favorite authors, Mark Twain, once said that “the public is merely a multiplied ‘me.’” I love that line, especially since he also later said that the public is “the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.”
Two of Twain’s books, “Roughing It” and “Life on the Mississippi,” made our “starter” list of Books that Shaped Work in America. Now, an additional five titles, which were suggested by the public, join the list (more will be added in the future). New to the list are:
Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand’s fourth and last novel, published in 1957. It is Rand’s strongest fictional assertion of her personal philosophy of objectivism, which posits that moral purpose derives from the pursuit of individual responsibility. And, according to Rand, that can only be achieved through unfettered free enterprise.
Click Clack Moo: Cows that Type is a children’s book by Doreen Cronin, with delightful watercolor illustrations by Betsy Lewin. It is a tale of a labor-management dispute between Farmer Brown and his resident bovines, who, upon finding an old typewriter in their barn, air their grievances. The chickens follow, and a strike ensues, leaving Farmer Brown with no milk or eggs. But through the skilled mediation of a neutral duck, a compromise is reached and production resumes. Published in 2000, it should be required reading for anyone in the labor relations field.
The Good Earth was written by Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck and published in 1931. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel describes life in agrarian China in the early 1900s through the story of a poor farmer and the wife and ex-slave his father procures for him. The book helped Americans to perceive China sympathetically in the fight against Japan in World War II, which broke out shortly after its publication. Although written about work in rural China, for many people in the United States and around the world, this novel continues to mold opinion about the dignity of work… wherever it is done.
Moby Dick is, I believe, the ultimate, quintessential book about work. One of the most well-known pieces of American literature, (officially titled Moby Dick; or The Whale) by Herman Melville, it chronicles sea ship Captain Ahab’s pursuit of a great white whale. The impetus for his hunt is revenge; on a previous voyage, the whale destroyed his ship and took his leg below the knee. Against this backdrop of determination rooted in detestation, it portrays life at sea for the ship’s crew, one of whom is the story’s narrator, Ishmael, as well as allegorizes the concept of Manifest Destiny that characterized America in the mid-1800s. Business reporter/blogger Dan McSwain of the San Diego Union-Tribune called it “American literature’s best cautionary tale on megalomaniacal CEOs.”
Words of César Chávez is a compendium of the orations first published in 2002 of the great farm worker and labor leader, who in 1962 co-founded what would become the United Farm Workers of America. In it, editors Richard J. Jensen and John C. Hammerback analyze Chávez’s major public addresses from 1965 to 1993, and provide historical insight into the strategies he used to galvanize support his forceful but nonviolent campaign for social justice and civil rights for farm workers. Chávez’s words remains insightful and inspirational. And as work changes, and workers change with it, his words remain relevant.
“Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter and not by the trimmings and shadings of their grammar,” Mark Twain once said. What books of style and matter shaped your view of workplace, workers and work in America? We want to hear from you.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. Learn more about the department’s 100 years of service by viewing an interactive timeline and watching a special centennial video at dol.gov/100.