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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Even those who pride ourselves on being well-read sometimes just hit a wall where we can't bring ourselves to finish a book. We may feel guilty for abandoning it but not guilty enough to actually see it through to the end. Chicago Tribune culture critic Julia Keller went through a similar bout with Hillary Mantel's novel "Wolf Hall." She struggled to finish it and then wondered why we treat books differently than movies or concerts or TV shows, forms of entertainment that some of us just readily turn off or walk away from. So she asked her readers to send her stories about books they never finished but wish they had. And now she knows she's not alone. Keller will join us in a moment.

What book did you almost give up on but returned to and finished? Or what book has continued to sit unfinished, mocking you from the bookshelf? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from member station WOSU in Columbus is Julia Keller. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. JULIA KELLER (Culture Critic, Chicago Tribune): Hi, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So "Wolf Hall," which won last year's Man Booker Prize, it was your Waterloo, huh?

Ms. KELLER: It was indeed, and I say that with some embarrassment now, of course, because not two weeks after I admitted that I tout it a bit of a tough go, it then won the National Book Critics' Circle award for fiction as well. So I really - I certainly picked something that everyone else had no problem with and found quite inspiring and delightful.

ROBERTS: Well, you did finally finish it, right?

Ms. KELLER: I did. You know, Im a book critic. I'm a literary critic. And so I'm in a sort of a peculiar position. I can't give up sometimes even if I want to. If it's already on the schedule to review, I must finish. But I thought that "Wolf Hall" was a good example though because I love Hillary Mantel's work. I'd loved her previous novels and I had read a lot about great thick tome that she had produced. And I sat down, and I described in the column, sitting down with a cup of tea at my elbow and just being ready, ready to plunge in, and I found my attention kind of wandering. And it just didn't seem quite as crisp and on target as some of her earlier work had been.

And I, as you said at the outset, I was curious if my readers and people of Chicago and elsewhere had the same experience. And lo and behold, in poured the emails. People told delightful, harrowing tales of trying to, as one of them put it, a delightful verb, claw her way through certain novels. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: ...at which I thought, once you're using the verb clawing your way through...

ROBERTS: Yeah, maybe you're already lost.

Ms. KELLER: ...you are lost.

ROBERTS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Well, Ted Koppel certainly has company in his inability to finish "War and Peace."

Ms. KELLER: Yeah. It's funny. You know, "War and Peace" was one I was actually able to finish. And I don't say that with great pride. I mean, am I smarter than Ted Koppel? I'm probably not. But I do think it's not always a measure of length. You'd think it would always be length. You'd think that it would always be "Moby Dick," it would always be "Anna Karenina," and yet not. There have been some shorter books, too, that I've had a bit of a problem with, as had my readers. Less a matter of length maybe than in our willingness to capitulate to a narrative, to give ourselves over to the story, and sometimes that's not the book's fault. Sometimes it's where we are. I think a lot of people told tales about where they were in their life when they tried to read a certain book and it was as much a function of who we are as what the book is.

ROBERTS: Why do you think we have a hard time giving up on books? What's the compulsion to finish them? Why not just say, life's too short, this book isn't for me...

Ms. KELLER: Oh...

ROBERTS: ...there are a million other books out there?

Ms. KELLER: Exactly. That's what really, really intrigued me. At the end of the day, in thinking about this, we've all walked out of movies. Heaven knows we click off TV shows with reckless abandon because of, of course, remote control channel changers. Now with Netflix, we barely give a movie - I think a minute, about a minute and 10 seconds is about my length of time now before it's, like, eh, that one's out of here. We throw it, you know, back in the mail.

Why do we have this special feeling about books? And I kind of mused a little bit towards the end of the column about that very issue. Is there something special about literature and narrative? I, of course, hope that there is. I think all literate people do. And I think this might be a point, a line in our history, in our cultural history, when that reaction tells us that there is something different and special about reading as opposed to watching or listening or being in the presence of in the way we are theater. We can abandon those things without any problem, but there's something about a book that we feel a little respectful of, and we think the author maybe is trying to communicate with us and we want to give them a little more leverage. We want to cut the author a little more slack.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, sometimes you get sentiments like this email from Elizabeth in Portland, Oregon, who says "The Gormenghast Trilogy" by Mervyn Peake, a doorstop of a book that came with gushing reviews and must-read, blah, blah, blah. I gave it my best shot, about 200 pages or so, and hated every boring page. I had...

Ms. KELLER: Yeah.

ROBERTS: ...never not completed a book until this one. I regularly relish books of this heft - fiction, nonfiction, you name it - but this one defeated me, and I am not ashamed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: I am not ashamed. You know, what's interesting, too, about this is everybody could name the book that bested them - which, again, is a tribute to the power of books in our lives. If I ask you the last TV show you turned off, you probably couldn't tell me. You'd say, I don't know. Maybe it was an episode of "Desperate Housewives." Maybe it was "Lost." Maybe it was "Burn Notice." You might have trouble, sort of, going to the rubble of things that you had turned off. But, boy, when it comes to a book, people know instantly...

ROBERTS: Yeah.

Ms. KELLER: ...when they quit and why.

ROBERTS: "Infinite Jest," David Foster Wallace. I tried it three times.

Ms. KELLER: See there? And you say that without shame, Rebecca. I'll have to say that. I have to say...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: On national radio.

Ms. KELLER: On national radio, you...

ROBERTS: Loud and proud.

Ms. KELLER: There's no going back now, Rebecca.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: I - well, again, and I think that's a tribute to books. And then I kind of ended my column, as well, talking about - we're getting a little hang up these days on how books are going to be coming to us. Is it going to be Kindle? Is it going to be iPad? Is it going to be this or that? And I'm far less interested in that. To me, that's almost beside the point. It's which story we're willing to let into our lives for whatever period of time.

And, again, I kind of regret that I picked "Wolf Hall." I mean, it was certainly genuine and legitimate. That was the one that got me thinking about this issue. But in a way, it was kind of beside the point, which one it was for me. As I said, there are books that we think we can't finish and we do, and you get to the end and you think, I can't imagine my life without having read this book. "Moby-Dick" is the one for me. I mean, you try to read as an undergraduate or a high school student, heaven forbid, and you think, oh, my God. This is worse than a root canal. This is terrible. This is awful.

ROBERTS: Right. You get into the level of detail about the rigging and the -ugh.

Ms. KELLER: Oh, and then you come across lines like, gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power - you know? And you're transfixed, and you - again, you cannot imagine the rest of your life without this book right in the center of it, affecting your thoughts and everything that happens to you, even though the chances of you actually being on a whaling ship are pretty remote.

ROBERTS: Let's hear it from Anne(ph) in Pacifica, California. Anne, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ANNE (Caller): Hi. For some reason, in high school, I could never finish the "Grapes of Wrath." And even though I was able to finish later in life "Moby-Dick" and "War and Peace" and a bunch of really long, boring things that people would never read...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANNE: ...I finally listened to the whole thing on CD, borrowed from the library while driving in the car. And I finished it. And I was so pleased that I did, because, you know, I always had, actually, wanted to read, you know, finish it in some way, and that book, actually, works on CD maybe because it's kind of written in a sort of a vernacular kind of American language to begin with.

Ms. KELLER: Yeah.

ANNE: So for those that's still want to finish that classic novel, they could try checking out CD books in their library.

Ms. KELLER: Now, see, that's interesting. I would have put "Grapes of Wrath" on my list, but before that would have been "East of Eden." I had actually loved "Grapes of Wrath," particularly the chapters where is he talking about the road, and then there's great hymns and poetry to the American road and that wonderful section about cars on the road and all of this. "East of Eden" was the one that stopped me. And I wanted to like it. I love Steinbeck. I think "Travels with Charley" is probably one of the great underrated books in our -in all of American culture. But for some reason, "East of Eden" was the one for me.

ROBERTS: Well, her point about listening to the book instead of reading it is also an interesting one, because I happen to listen to a lot of books on tape and I was on a kick of, sort of, American classics I had never made it to for a while, and I actually turned off "The Last of the Mohicans." It's the only time I've turned off an audio book. But I just - I - it was something about the production, as well as the pedantic writing. I just couldn't do it.

Ms. KELLER: Well, and I was going to say, Rebecca, the fact that you work in radio might give you a little bit of a bias toward listening.

ROBERT: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: I'm not sure that I think your objectivity in this could quite be trusted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: Well, but truly, I...

ROBERTS: Well, fair enough. But you're a book critic. Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: It's true. And I, you know, I have - I don't have any problem with audio books, and they can be great for long journeys anywhere. I think the experience of listening is very different than the experience of reading, of course. And in terms of what is more exalted or what, you know, which way is our brain apprehends all this information, I think sometimes, listening to nonfiction, for me, is easier.

I don't - I would prefer reading fiction always, I think, than listening into it. I don't know why. That's just me. Maybe I'm crazy. But then again, I wouldn't admit publicly do not finishing "Infinite Jest," so...

ROBERTS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: So we each have something on each other there. That's fair enough. All right, let's hear from Terry(ph) in Oklahoma City. Terry, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TERRY (Caller): Hello. I could not finish "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Ms. KELLER: Mm. The old magical realism just did you in. Yeah.

TERRY: I don't know if it was the translation, but I tried and tried and tried. But I know why we are more frustrated with not finishing books than movies or TV. The books are sitting on our nightstands or on our bookshelves, and they taunt you. They're still there.

Ms. KELLER: Oh.

TERRY: When you click the remote, it's gone. But your book is sitting there saying, you couldn't do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: That is a great point. It's a visible reproach. I think...

TERRY: Yes.

Ms. KELLER: ...you're quite right. Actually, I sort of - I described part of the problems newspapers are having to that very thing. When you have newspapers stacking up on your kitchen table with all these wonderful stories you mean to read one day, it becomes a bit of a scolding finger wag in the face.

TERRY: I - and I think it will change when we start using the iPads and the Kindles more often. It'll be easier to just delete. You know, you'll just get rid of it. It won't be there like a book. It'll...

Ms. KELLER: What a great point. That could actually - instead of being the death of literature, this could actually be the renaissance of great literature. I like that.

ROBERTS: Terry, thank you for your call. You know, she's not the only person who's mentioned the "One Hundred Years of Solitude," just as we have been discussing this topic around TALK OF THE NATION. And that's one of those books that I adored and kept imagine my life without.

Ms. KELLER: That's the thing. What is it when you hear from a friend or, you know, I guess from a reader, and it will be some book that, again, I clutched to my bosom, you know, with great passion and fervor. And they tell me they couldn't make it past page 27. My first thought is: What's wrong with them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: Is always - it can't be me. But it does. There's something about our reading matter that it's kind of an index to our personalities. And it's not our intelligence level. It's certainly more than just our taste, I think. It goes a little deeper than just personal taste.

ROBERTS: We are talking about giving up on a book with Julia Keller. She's the culture critic for The Chicago Tribune. You can join us at 800-989-8255. Or send us email. Tell us the book that you couldn't quite make it through. Talk@npr.org is our email address, or join the conversation at the Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's take a call from Courtney(ph) in Tucson. Courtney, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

COURTNEY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. The book that I had trouble getting through was "Cold Mountain." I know it's not "Moby-Dick." But I had trouble getting through it. I got a tip to read it from a friend at work who was doing it in a book club. And after the first two chapters, I just could not do it. And I tried it, like, three or four nights in a row. And then, a year later, about - I went back and I did it again, and I got through it and I loved it.

ROBERTS: Ah-ha.

Ms. KELLER: Huh.

COURTNEY: I just thought it was one of the greatest books I ever read. It's, like, on my list of greatest books.

ROBERTS: See, Courtney...

Ms. KELLER: That's a book that I actually finished and sort of wished I hadn't, because I felt like it was his walk home in real time. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COURTNEY: But I, you know, the story was pretty captivating, and then the movie came out, and I really loved the movie, as well. And, you know, I just am glad that I got a chance to read it and then saw the movie. That was good.

Ms. KELLER: And the question is - we know the book didnt change, so obviously you changed in the intervening time. And that's something else books do, dont you think? I mean, it's a bit of mirror held up not just to life - I mean, the old romanticism idea. But it's a mirror held out to our journey through life, where we are.

I mean, I mentioned "Moby-Dick," couldn't have gotten through it at all in high school. But coming at it a few years later, it spoke to me in a way that it simply could not have earlier. And again, the book didn't change. Melville's been gone quite awhile. So, clearly, it was me that had to change. I like "Cold Mountain" a lot. I think the writing style is a bit on the dense side. I enjoy that. It's a - and that might very well be a matter of taste in your writer's style. I found it very densely packed, as it were. You know, it's like opening up a can with a lot of things in it. And it's - you have to be ready for that. And if you're not in exactly the right frame of mind, it can be pretty tough.

ROBERTS: Well, that's why I think it's particularly interesting that you were stumped by the Hillary Mantel book, because you were so in the zone. You had your tea. You had your comfy book. You - it wasn't that you were trying to wedge it in among other busy things.

Ms. KELLER: No, no, crackling fire, I mean, you know, light...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: ...classical music on the CD player, it could've been better. Comfy chair - no, it was all there. I can't figure out what it is. I love British history. I got - I heard it from a lot of readers who said, well, if you knew anything at all about British history, you would've relished this with every fiber of your being. I was ready. And, again, I really adore her work. She has several previous novels that are just - they're funny and smart and learned, and I don't know what it was about this. And I suppose if Hillary herself were on the line, she might say, well, perhaps it's not the book. It's me. She might say, it's you, Julia. It's not Hillary.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Well, you did finish it, though.

Ms. KELLER: I did finish it - but again, that was more because of my job. I mean, if I'm going to write about something to not finish it, people will still ask me, actually, because I write about a lot of books. They'll say, well, did you read the whole thing? And I tell them that would be like asking a movie critic if they stuck around to that - you know, past the first 15 minutes. Yes, indeed, I did. And I was glad that I finished it. In fact, one reader said to me, perhaps the whole point of getting through a book that you're not mad about is the fact that you got through it to teach you something about life.

And while that sounds like a little bit of a Sunday school lesson, I thought she really had a valid point, that it's going through things that we not - that we don't think we're going to necessarily enjoy right off the bat that tells us something about ourselves, the fact that we are able to get to the end. I certainly felt that way about "Wolf Hall" at the end. I didnt regret the time I'd spent on it, but I was kind of proud of myself for sticking with it.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mikey(ph) in Denver. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKEY (Caller): Hi. I've got kind of a funny story. At one point a number of years ago, I decided that I needed to read all the Harvard Classics. And I thought I had picked up "The Agony and the Ecstasy." And I was trying to figure out how this incredible author was going to get this little Russian boy into the Sistine Chapel, because reading and reading and reading. And I was proud of myself on finishing all books. And I kept reading. And finally, I looked at the title and realized I was reading "War and Peace."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: Yeah.

MIKEY: And so I said, okay, you don't have to finish books. And I've never read either one of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: That is very funny. I think that, you know, a kind of prescriptive reading - which I quite agree with, by the way. And there have been so many wonderful books, David Denby's book, several about sort of setting yourself a task and saying, I'm going to read this big hunk of books, this big shelf full of books, be it the Harvard Classics or the Great Book series that came out of the University of Chicago. I quite agree with that.

I think it's a wonderful thing. It's sort of like saying I'm going to join a gym and lose 10 pounds. It's a - but probably, you'll have a little better success with the books than with the losing 10 pounds. But I think that's quite wonderful. I mean, as human beings, we do that. We set ourselves this task, and we say I'm going to get something out of this, and it doesn't mean more money in my pocket or another car in my garage or, you know, another sandwich on my plate. It's going to be something about my soul. And it's - that seems to me to be maybe particularly American in a sort of a wonderful way.

ROBERTS: Was there a book that a bunch of people wrote in and said they couldn't finish that you wanted to put up a billboard, saying take the time, it's worth it? Go ahead and finish "War and Peace."

Ms. KELLER: Oh, that's a great question. "War and Peace," I suppose I would argue for, although I think with books in translation, there's always this issue of are you getting the real story? I mean, certain works by Dostoyevsky I thought I had read, and come to find out now that you really need to read all over again in new translations. We now know that the good, old venerable Constance Garnett translations that most of us grew up with actually, probably weren't really accurate. So now we've got to go back and read the whole thing all over again, "Brothers Karamazov" and "Crime and Punishment" and "The Idiot" and "Possessed," and on it goes.

ROBERTS: Julia Keller is the culture critic of The Chicago Tribune. You can read her column "When to Give Up on a Book" at npr.org. She joined us from member station WOSU in Columbus. Thanks so much.

Ms. KELLER: Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, SCIENCE FRIDAY, with Ira Flatow, for a talk about the birth of forensic medicine in early 20th century New York. Neal Conan's back Monday.

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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