When I gave Dad a tour of my workplace, we were maybe five steps into the newsroom when he took in our paper-piled desks and file-filled boxes and asked, “Does OSHA ever visit here?”
Dad worked at an an industrial bakery — hot, heavy, noisy work, turning out thousands of loaves of bread every day. It was bread that put bread on our table. His formal education ended with high school; he started at the bakery because his father worked there.
Dad worked up to foreman and then manager, through a combination of common sense, dependability, adaptability, and fairness in his dealings with employees (and Mom’s urgings to apply for that promotion). At his funeral visitation last year, 13 years after he’d retired, a stream of men from the bakery came by. Clearly he was respected highly, and remembered well.
Dad read people and situations, not books. I doubt he even knew about the popular management books of his day. Honestly, I don’t, either. For the business of good storytelling, these are some of the books I keep around.
• Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts, Charlie LeDuff
In brief sketches, Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter LeDuff employs keen observation and selective dialogue to introduce people through the refracting lens of their work — the florist who never receives flowers herself on Mother’s Day, the celebrity lighthouse keeper who just wants to be left alone, barkeeps who serve social and familial roles along with drinks. He’s a master at two skills of good reporting: paying attention, and keeping himself out of the way.
• Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford
When a philosophy book becomes a best-seller, lots of readers must have overcome aversion to that p-word. Matthew Crawford left a head-centric job in a cubicle for a hands-centric job in his own motorcycle shop. With personable style, he considers how we got away from valuing trades, and makes a case for reclaiming the goodness of working with the hands, which does not preclude working with the mind.
• Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
This is the only book I know about the stewardship of a resource we all have, and which we can spend as thoughtlessly and irresponsibly as money: language. It has applications for all workplaces. McEntyre writes:
Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide and nourish one another. We need to take the metaphor of nourishment seriously in choosing what we ‘feed on’ in our hearts, and in seeking to make our conversation with each other life-giving.
• My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers
Every workplace is dysfunctional in its own way. We have little or no control over institutional structures and practices. But I can control my own attitudes, my dedication to the tasks before me, my responses to the drama of the day. I can look within and see whether maybe the problem lies with me. In this daily devotional book, the late Scotsman consistently helps me to do that work.
• Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Vocation, Nancy Nordenson
Like Nordenson and many other people I know, I have a day job, and I have other work. This book won’t be out until next year, but I’m eager to read it for what it has to say about finding wholeness in these patchwork work lives. You can get a taste of the book in this beautiful essay, recently published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Beginning with a story about a cabbie who plays his flute during traffic jams, Nordenson considers questions of work, vocation and identity with the training of a scientist and the ear of a poet.
The High Calling asked, “Consider books and words that have helped you in your high calling.” Click to see what others have to say.