Those of you who participated in our New Year’s Day Teleseminar learned that one of my favorite magazines — the kind I read, not just subscribe to — is The Week. And one of my favorite sections is a middle-of-the-magazine feature in which they ask a writer to list his or her six favorite books, often about a particular topic.

A few weeks ago, the magazine asked me to participate — to tell readers my six favorite books about work, a subject about which I’m slightly obsessed. Here’s my list:

Working by Studs Terkel (New Press, $17). In 1974, my mother brought this book home from the library and I, then 10 years old, snatched it to read Terkel’s interview with a baseball player. To my surprise, I ended up staying for the bus drivers, strip miners, and school teachers. Hearing real grown-ups talk about what they did for a living was, for me, far more exciting than phantom tollbooths or Mrs. Frankweiler’s mixed-up files.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper Perennial, $15). Flow is the mental state when the challenge before us is so exquisitely matched to our abilities that we lose our sense of time and forget ourselves in a function. Csikszentmihalyi’s contemporary classic reveals that we’re more likely to find flow at work than in leisure.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferriss (Back Bay, $14). This darkly hilarious novel is a cautionary tale for white-collar workers. At a downward-spiraling ad agency in Chicago, employees spend more time scarfing free doughnuts and scamming office chairs than doing actual work—all while fretting about “walking Spanish down the hall,” company lingo for being fired.

The Organization Man by William H. Whyte (University of Pennsylvania Press, $26). This remarkable book about the deadening effect of large companies reshaped the national conversation and recast its very vocabulary. Whyte, a Fortune editor who merged journalism and sociology, established the gold standard for writing about work.

The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli (Wiley, $19). That simple T-shirt you’re wearing isn’t so simple after all. A Texas farmer grew the cotton, a Chinese worker spun the thread and cut the fabric, a Florida merchant placed it in his store, and a Tanzanian entrepreneur will resell it after you’ve donated it to the Salvation Army. Economist Rivoli visits the players in this international supply chain and weaves a gripping narrative.

Animal Farm by George Orwell (Plume, $14). A thrilling takeover. Corrupt, disengaged management. Beleaguered, underappreciated workers. You might think Orwell’s fable is an allegory of totalitarianism, but it’s also a mini-MBA in organizational behavior.

16 Responses to “My 6 favorite books about work”

  1. Daniel – I’m probably equally obsessed as you. One I would add to the list (besides all of your books) is Seth Godin’s Linchpin. It offers a fantastic glimpse of the bridging of art and work.

  2. Great list! I definitely added a few of these to my reading queue. I would agree with David about Seth Godin’s Linchpin, I just started reading it and the ideas are very relevant to today’s work landscape. Reading Drive is next on my list. 🙂

  3. Tony Woody says:

    Great recommendations. After reading your article in ‘The Week’ I went out and purchased ‘Working’, which I am reading now and reread ‘Animal Farm’. Working is a timeless piece of work.

  4. Haven’t read any of those yet (besides Animal Farm) so thanks for some new ideas Dan. I’m currently really enjoying Rework, Linchpin and your own Drive.

    There seems to be a groundswell in support of a more right-brain approach to work and entrepreneurship which I pick up in my own book “Screw Work, Let’s Play: How to do what you love and get paid for it” coming out in June.

  5. Robert Dawson says:

    “A Whole New Mind” is a pretty good read. Anyone what wants to understand the context of ‘work’ that is now being done should read this book, especially new grads.

    “Flow” is a wonderful work and that book along with “The Rise of the Creative Class” that define the new role of ‘work’ in our lives.

  6. Alex Monroe says:

    Animal Farm is such a phenomenal book and its been years since I have read. I think its time to go to library…

  7. Dan Black says:

    Great book recommendations. I plan on putting a few on my book list. Also I saw you talk about your book Drive in Portland OR and loved it. Great talk and book.

  8. Carol says:

    I had nearly the same childhood experience with Stud Terkels’ book Working. I seem to remember him talking to prostitutes which I found shocking. I also never thought anybody cared about the work of plumbers, bus drivers, garbagemen. Eye-opening for a kid and I am sure the grown-ups of the time were captivated, too. He had a radio show in Chicago. I wonder if I can locate some archived Terkel shows.

  9. Wendy Marquardt says:

    I must as A WHOLE NEW MIND to the list–it was life-changing for me! I believe that it deserves a place on everyone’s Top 6 List! Thanks for writing it–and helping us all to “see”–and yes, I did take Brian Bomeisler’s Class–it really put the “cherry” on the the top of the sundae (your fine book)!

  10. Dan says:

    Dan: Thank you- a great list. I agree that ‘A Whole New Mind’ should be on the list. I’d also like to add ‘The Three Marriages’ by David Whyte.

  11. Dan, I enjoyed Drive and am now reading the books that you suggested at the end. I’m particularly fascinated with Ricardo Semler and Semco since I’m moving to Brazil in July. Look forward to playing around with some of his ideas.
    I’d like to add Stephen Covey’s 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness to your list. I think that Covey focuses on many of the same ideas that you share in Drive.

  12. solo says:

    Of all the literature books that I studied in my schooldays, George Orwell’s Animal Farm has the gretest impact on me.

  13. parveen says:

    thanks for sharing the list. and ì agree with everyone on including “whole new mind” to the list. Frankly iam using ur book as reference & guide. 🙂

  14. Roger says:

    I’ve been reading two books about Semco, “Maverick,” and “The Seven Day Weekend.” It seems that Semco, more than any other large company in the world, has the Autonomy (and probably the Mastery) component figured out.

    I’m surprised that it rarely comes up in the business world in North America. I’d like to know other peoples’ thoughts on this.

  15. Jaime says:

    Hi Dan,

    This is a great list (and one that I’m immediately stealing from you)! I was wondering if you knew any good book on workplace culture, and the effects on the people who inhabit it. Sometimes I get the feeling that the emergent systems that surround us 9 hours a day, 2000 hours a year, end up shaping us in deeper ways than we realize.

    Cheers!

  16. Steve McCrea says:

    I’m interested in connecting work with schools, so please add Dennis Littky’s book about how adults can show students about their work. The chapter on MENTORS in Littky’s BIG PICTURE (2004) is helpful for students and teachers. You can get a free chapter at http://www.TinyURL.com/littkychapter1

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