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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Alexis Herman

Alexis Herman
Former Secretary of Labor

"Work is love made real," Kahlil Gibran wrote in his 1923 book of prose poetry, The Prophet. I've always loved that passage. And I've always believed that work is more than a source of income; it's a source of dignity. It is also fundamental to identity, and often defines us. "What do you do?" is one of the first questions asked when meeting someone new. So I couldn't help but pick a few books that I think define us as a nation of workers.

Richard Wright, Native Son (1940). This book remains one of the most effective portrayals of America's racial divide in literature. Through the story of a young African-American man who unintentionally murders a white woman in 1930s Chicago, it shed painful but necessary light on the social and economic injustices born out of systemic poverty and racial oppression. In so doing, it helped fuel momentum for the emerging civil rights movement. Indeed, in 1963 Irving Howe asserted that: "The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever." I'd say that work in America was changed forever, as well.

Dorothy Height, Open Wide the Freedom Gates (2003). More than a half-century later, my mentor and friend chronicled her life as an advocate for equality and advancement, especially for African-American women. Written with the wisdom of 91 years behind her, it's both an autobiography and a history of the civil rights movement, as she was an integral player in most of its landmark events, including standing onstage as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream of a better America. But this book is also a "how to" for women navigating the world of work…especially the work of changing the world.

John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (1982). This book didn't shape work in America so much as it prognosticated the shape it would take, successfully describing the seismic shifts that have occurred over the last three decades. Key among these is the arrival of the information age and a truly global economy that has been decentralized and made accessible through new technologies. Of particular interest to me was the author's assertion that, regardless of the high-tech nature of work in the future, human involvement—what he terms "high touch"—would remain essential to organizational success. We call that "emotional intelligence" today. But whatever you call it, it is a critical factor in workplace success.

Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). In addition to introducing the concept of paradigm shift, this book represented a significant one itself. It promotes an abundance mindset—the belief that there are enough opportunities for success to be shared—versus a scarcity mindset (i.e., if someone else wins, you lose). It quickly became a manual for many leaders, and not just in business; President Bill Clinton invited Covey to Camp David to discuss how to implement its principles in his administration.

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). This autobiography is an amazing example of the major impact literature can have—on both an individual and societal level. In it, Angelou recounts her childhood, one during which the ability to take refuge in books played a critical role in her overcoming trauma and becoming a strong African-American woman in a society dominated by white men. Deep and rich, it is a profound statement on many things, chief among them the power of education in achieving independence, self-determination and the dignity and satisfaction that comes with work.

Alexis Herman was the 23rd U.S. Secretary of Labor, serving from 1997 to 2000.

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