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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

 Seema Nanda

Seema Nanda
Deputy Chief of Staff

The possibilities for this list are truly endless, so I chose titles that influenced my personal views of work at various stages throughout my life.

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). As a child, I could not forget the image of poor Charlie savoring his yearly chocolate bar for a month, while his father supported seven people by working as a cap-screwer at a toothpaste factory. His dad was never able to make enough money, no matter how fast he screwed on the caps. Of course, this seemingly simple children’s story can be interpreted on many levels and has much to say about the importance of work, and especially work ethic. Charlie’s father loses his job when the toothpaste factory goes bankrupt. Mr. Wonka fires thousands of workers after corporate “spies” reveal his secrets and replaces them with the unpaid but seemingly content Oompa Loopmas. At the end, Charlie’s family’s salvation comes from not only the famed golden ticket, but Charlie’s moral compass, with a little magic thrown in for good measure.
Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore (1989). When I read this book in college, it was a watershed moment for me. Now a primer on Asian-American history, it is a carefully researched chronicle of the often forgotten story of how Asian Americans filled myriad U.S. labor needs—from Chinese Americans miners in mid-1800s California to Filipinos in the fisheries of Alaska and Indian Americans in the lumber towns of Washington State and fields of California in the early 1900s. Laws and court decisions in the early 20th century ended Asian immigration until the late 1960s, just before my family emigrated to the U.S. 
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (1971). This is one of my favorite works of fiction. I have always been captivated by stories of the great Western expansion, and Stegner captures it beautifully in this novel. Much of the story takes place in Western mining country, where Oliver Ward, the protagonist’s grandfather, works as an engineer in different mines, against the backdrop of the hardscrabble West. While the book is a rich portrayal of marriage and forgiveness, the nuggets of Western work life, from the Chinese laborers to the whimsical bosses, are impeccably told.

Daniel H. Pink, Drive (2009). Reading this book was an “aha” moment for me on what we know about what motivates workers today. Pink points out that while scientific research shows that today’s workers are motivated internally, businesses by and large are still using a carrot and stick approach. His straightforward explanation of how true motivation comes from creating an environment where workers can develop autonomy, mastery and purpose has significantly influenced how I think about worker productivity and well-being.

Seema Nanda is the Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Labor.

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