13 Books To Transform The Way You Feel About Work, Because How You Feel When You Sit Down At Your Desk Can Totally Get Better
You know that feeling that rises up in the pit of your stomach when the alarm goes off at some ungodly hour? Although you know you should already be stumbling towards the shower, instead you lie motionless for a few final moments, safe and warm under the covers, dreading every minute of what lies ahead? That's right — another work day is about to begin.
Sure, for the lucky few who have landed dream jobs on Broadway, or designed an app that will be sold to Google for an astronomical lump sum (congrats, I hate you), heading to the office every day might be thrill and a pleasure. But for the rest of us? Well, as someone who has worked at jobs ranging from Aquasculptor (translation: digger of fish ponds for rich people) to Gallery Director, I've found that the daily grind can really wear on a person, regardless of how bizarre the perks (free aquarium fish) or how impressive the title. Even when you find a job you love, with colleagues for whom you care, and a living wage, living the life of a working girl can be tough.
Now, you could try coffee (been there), or denial (done that), but I've found that there's nothing like a little creative exploration to really shed new light on working life. So, why not leave behind the drudgery of days gone by and transform the way you feel about work with these 13 books? They'll help shed light on life, job, and everything that lies ahead:
JPod by Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland's wry, witty, and wonderful story of game designers abandoned to their nerdy devices as cogs in the machine of a large video game design firm once made me laugh so hard that I spit coffee onto the girl sitting next to me on the bus to work. Jane Doe was not impressed, but I was entirely transported — flying high above the dull daily grind of my commute thanks to Coupland's comic genius. Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine, and if you can find the funny in all the deeply absurd and utterly banal elements of a work-a-day existence with the help of JPod, you'll be well on your way to an entirely new mindset.
Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood
For a period of time I'd rather not recall in great detail, I worked in customer support for a large tech startup where there was (I kid you not) an actual, old-school water cooler around which we would in fact congregate, discussing the latest gossip. Office politics are simply a fact of life, but when that very blurry line between private personal details and the daily dish totally disappears, chaos descends, as described in Margaret Atwood's clever, careful novel about two colleagues, Lesje and Nate, carrying on an affair while Nate's wife Elizabeth copes with the recent suicide of her own lover. Ladies and gentleman, water cooler gossip doesn't get any better than this, and reading Atwood's psychologically rich and emotionally roiling novel helps to remind me that relationships are just a part of life, and accepting the private lives of our colleagues for what they are without engaging in the sticky subjects that scandalize and separate us can help make the workday feel all the more rich and rewarding.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
If you think you've got it bad, I challenge you to take up Upton Sinclair's seminal exposé of the inner workings of the meatpacking industry and experience the raw, unmitigated horror of work on the killing floor. Sometimes a little shock and awe is the best way to put your own work life in perspective, and that change in attitude can make all the difference.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Claire Messud's brilliant and beautiful tale of of one woman's frustrated desires for artistic success rips away the veil of secrecy that so often shrouds our private desires and forces the idea of professional dissatisfaction out into the open. If you're feeling alone in wishing for more from your work life, pick up The Woman Upstairs and allow the empathetic rage wash over you. You'll emerge like a phoenix from the flames, stronger than ever before and ready to make the most of your professional life.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
You wouldn't think a novel that digs deep into the daily grind of employees at a regional examination center for the Internal Revenue Service would be both bitterly poignant and hilariously funny. So, the fact that The Pale King is all that and so much more is surely a testament to David Foster Wallace's extraordinary gift for storytelling. If you, like The Pale King's finely wrought, neurotic protagonists, find yourself bored to tears on a daily basis, combat the apathy and ennui of work by taking a few pointers from Foster Wallace and appreciating the humor and emotional depth of all that you do from the perspective of a stranger. It may just help make it all feel a little more worthwhile.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand's evangelical faith in the power of work to bring meaning and joy to life is so impassioned, so well-articulated, and so charismatic that a brief read may just be enough to bring new energy and passion to your work life. Dive right in to the story of Howard Roark, a young man with vision and convictions fighting for a world purer and freer through dedication to his one true calling — architecture, I get chills just talking about it, (and I might even be typing faster...). Why not see what The Fountainhead can do for you?
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Sure, you have a job to do at work, but you also have coffee breaks, and lunch hours, awkward meetings in the restroom, snarky notes to find on the coffee maker and strange team building exercises both frightening and funny. Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End celebrates those elements of office life that exist outside the realm of actual work, and this unusual story of survival in the urban jungle may just be enough to help you see your work day as so much more than just long hours of labor.
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy introduces us to a very different kind of labor through the intimate portrayal of a young girl emigrating from the Caribbean to work as an au pair for a wealthy white family who seem to have it all. Lucy takes the time to consider in loving detail a type of work all too often ignored in life and in literature, a lesson that can help to put the many ignominies of work life into perspective, while serving as a reminder that there is no substitute for true passion, as Lucy herself discovers.
Something Happened by Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller's Something Happened may just be the perfect tale for the discontented and downtrodden daily laborer. Thanks to Heller's unique blend of satire, sincerity, and subtle, rhetorical brilliance, Something Happened becomes so much more than just the tale of one man who just can't seem to find happiness until... something happens. Marrying candid insight and a curious devotion to the whims of fate, Something Happened is the perfect book to read for a rousing reminder that every day really is a new adventure, and although your work life may just seem like the same old story day after day, at any given moment something could happen.
The Brainstorm by Jenny Turner
Lorna, the beguiling heroine of Jenny Turner's sharp, spitfire comedy of manners The Brainstorm, arrives at the glittering tower of steel and glass that houses her office one fine morning only to find that she has no earthly idea of what it is that she does there. Because Turner does a far better job of describing what happens next than I ever could, all I will add at this juncture is that while a brief bout of amnesia certainly would shake up your work life, if you're not willing to go the route of major head trauma (and I strongly suggest that you do not), this book might be the next best thing to bring about a total attitude reboot.
JR by William Gaddis
An 11-year-old boy, a passion for the principles of capitalism, and a complete lack of a conscious set the stage for one of the strangest and most disturbing stories of the American dream ever told. So, if you're feeling yourself drawn into that murky, fast-moving stream of corruption against your will, William Gaddis' JR might just be the cautionary tale that inspires you to reconsider how you really want to live your life, and whether your work really is in line with your principles, hopes, dreams, and goals.
Intuition by Allegra Goodman
Ahhhh, interoffice competition — it can be friendly, it can be fierce, but it cannot be stopped. If you're stuck in a rat race, struggling to overtake your coworker or desperate just to keep up, step back and spend some time with Allegra Goodman's Intuition, the profound and prosaic story of scientific colleagues duking it out in the competitive world of government-funded research — you may just find a few reasons to duck out of the race and try for a little cooperation instead.
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville
There is something so unexpected, so daring, so deviant about Melville's Bartleby, the legal scribe who begins to respond to any requests made of him by management or coworkers with the consistent refrain "I would prefer not to." Although the story is now more than 150 years old, the text feels almost absurdly contemporary. If you find yourself stuck watching Netflix when you should be writing reports or killing time on Facebook when you could be making progress on the job, consider turning to Melville for a little lesson in the dangers of diminished motivation. It may just be enough to fire you up with a newfound passion for the work you do and the joy you find in doing it.
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