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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Hilda. L. Solis

Hilda L. Solis
Former Secretary of Labor

I love to read, and I've always loved to read about work. So this was an easy assignment for me, combining two of my great passions. If stranded on a deserted island, these are four "work books" I'd like to have with me:

John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath (1939). This marvelous book had a profound impact on me the first time I read it. And it still moves and inspires me every time I re-read it. It was the first time I saw people like me, my family and my neighbors portrayed accurately and honestly in American literature. My parents lived that story in many respects. I think it should be required reading for all high school students. The movie, staring Henry Fonda, is wonderful, too. But as if often the case with screen adaptations, it doesn't do the novel complete justice. Steinbeck had the ability to make magic with the written word. He didn't tell you; he took you there.

Gabriel Thompson, Working in the Shadows (2011). This book put a modern lens on the tough times that Steinbeck described. The author spent a year undercover, working the toughest jobs in America, which mostly immigrants do: picking lettuce in Arizona, toiling in a poultry processing plant in Alabama and braving the streets of New York City on a bicycle delivering take-out meals for an upscale restaurant. He doesn't attempt to survive on his shockingly low (and often illegal) wages; he has the luxury of renting a car when he needs one and paying his rent in advance. He simply tries to survive the job, each for two months. The reader is quick to wonder how anyone could do this kind of work for a season, a year or a lifetime.

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1955). I cannot talk about work without talking about working in government, and one of the most compelling portrayals of this is of course Kennedy's Pulitzer-prize winning book, an assemblage of short biographies of eight U.S. Senators who had the integrity and courage to stand up for what they believed in during their time in public office, despite the political ramifications.

Caroline Kennedy (Editor), Profiles of Courage for Our Time (2002). A contemporary perspective on the messages in Profiles in Courage is provided in this book, which tells the stories of a diverse range of public servants (and I'm immensely honored to be one of them). Some of today's best writers, including E.J. Dionne, Anna Quindlen and Bob Woodward, profile people who pursue justice, sometimes at very high costs. These elected officials include leaders such as President Gerald Ford and Congressman John Lewis. But they also include others who aren't in the history books—at least not yet. And their stories are equally inspiring. For anyone who wants to work doing "the people's business," this book, like its forerunner, is not just a "must-read," but also a moral compass.

Hilda L. Solis was the 25th U.S. Secretary of Labor, serving from 2009 to 2013.

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