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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

 Thomas E. Perez

Thomas E. Perez
Secretary of Labor

Putting together a list of books that shaped work in America is a daunting task. And picking just five is the hardest part. Which American classic makes the cut? What title from which iconic author to choose? Fiction or nonfiction: which plays a bigger role? Whose life—in biography or autobiography—exemplifies the axiom that hard work is the best path to achieving the American Dream?  Do plays count?  (I think so!)  Here are my suggestions—fiction and nonfiction, a set of plays, a great American novel and even a book for kids—that reflect the extraordinary breadth and diversity that is work in America:

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). One of the most beloved books of all time, our partner, the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, rated it second only to the Bible in books that are most often cited as making a difference. And for more than 50 years, it has stirred countless men and women (including Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, author Scott Turow and federal judge Richard Matsch) to pursue a career in law or civil rights. To this day, the character of Atticus Finch epitomizes honor and integrity. I give this book to my nieces and nephews on their 13th birthday. And it has become required reading in the Perez home.

Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World (2013). Having grown up in a bilingual, bicultural household as the son of Latino immigrants, I was moved by this memoir from our first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice. One reviewer called it “a story of human triumph.” But for me, it is above all a remarkable and uniquely American story of how far you can go with hard work and a strong will; how adversity can be overcome with resilience, ambition and a commitment to excellence.

Richard Scarry, Busy, Busy Town (1994). Want to introduce children (ages 3 to 7) to the wondrous world of work? Bring them to Busytown, where they will meet dock workers and doctors; bankers and bakers; barbers and booksellers; lumberjacks and librarians; postal workers and police officers.  Everybody’s work plays an important role in making Busytown a bustling community. Vivid, colorful characters like Huckle Cat, Lowly Worm and Sergeant Murphy introduce kids to various occupations and professions, while instilling the value and dignity of honest work.

August Wilson, The Pittsburgh Cycle (1982-2005). This collection of ten plays, two of which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is largely set in the Hill District, a predominately African American neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pa.  Each tells a story from a different decade of the 20th century. We meet a wide variety of working people: a baseball player turned garbage collector (“Fences”), a group of musicians (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), a restaurant owner (“Two Trains Running”), gypsy cab drivers (“Jitney”) and even a politician (“Radio Golf”), among many others. We get a window into not only their struggles, but also what inspires and sustains them. And as a result, we understand each other better.  

Alex Kotlowitz, The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death & America's Dilemma (1998). The St. Joseph River separates two southwestern Michigan towns: St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. They might as well be two different worlds. One is black, the other is white. One is rich, the other is poor. When the body of a 16-year old black male was found in the river, it polarized both towns. This book explores what happened. Perhaps it’s an unusual entry for a list of books about work, but how can we truly grasp the importance of work in America without understanding what happens to people and communities when work is scarce and opportunity is elusive? And we can’t begin to tackle those issues without thinking about race relations in America. No matter what side of the river you are on, this book challenges your conceptions.

Thomas E. Perez is the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

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