It's a Living
A surprisingly sprightly history of the glum designs behind the world of modern work
A Secret History of the Workplace
by Nikil Saval
$26.95 List Price
One of my favorite moments in Cubed, Nikil Saval’s lush, funny, and unexpectedly fascinating history of the workplace, comes in a chapter called “The Birth of the Office,” in which the author describes the insane yet rampant “efficiency” craze that began to sweep the nation in 1900. One of its outgrowths was a periodical called System, subtitled A Monthly Magazine for the Man of Affairs. “Each volume,” Saval writes, “had articles proposing new models for the minutiae of office life, whether a new system of filing or a more efficient mode of envelope licking.” (In 1929, the magazine changed to a weekly—and called itself BusinessWeek.)
By sheer coincidence, I was perusing System’s less-than-colorful history on my way to a gig at City Lights Bookstore, where preparations were in full throttle for the celebration of William Burroughs’s one hundredth birthday. At that legendary Beat Generation mecca, I was surrounded by posters of Burroughs’s face, staring grimly in my direction, looking every bit like the midwestern Bürgermeister he by rights should have been, given his legacy as grandson of the original William S. Burroughs, founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company.
The juxtaposition felt perfect, somehow, given that the great delights of Saval’s opus are the segments he lifts from modern management literature. Saval deserves a lifetime supply of Advil, not just for the almost perverse depth of his headache-inducing research—the Proceedings of the 1935 Conference of the National Office Management Association! the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair!