MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. The office has long been a symbol of boredom. A new book looks at how we came by this type of workplace. It's called "Cubed." Here's Rosecrans Baldwin with a review.
ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: "Cubed" bills itself as a secret history of the workplace. That's not exactly true. This history's been there all along, but it was mostly the province of design historians and business writers. Thankfully, Nikil Saval has made it engrossing for the rest of us. Take the rise of clerks in the mid 19th century. They were the original white collar workers. They were also widely despised.
Edgar Allan Poe mocked them in fiction. Ralph Waldo Emerson pretty much called them a class of whiners. They were seen as low moral dandies who were just clever with numbers. Real men, Saval tell us, worked with their hands. But white collar work would soon include women. In 1870, women made up 3 percent of office workers, but a combination of suffrage and the fact that female labor was simply cheaper meant that half a century later, the number of clerks had gone from 80,000 to 3 million, and almost half of them were women.
Saval does a great job of tracking the ruckus that resulted from the sexes mingling in the office. He found fascinating details that read like notes for the writers of "Mad Men." In the '30s, a survey of secretaries who'd been fired found that at least two-thirds were let go because of personality and character defects, like, for example, an unwillingness to go night-clubbing with the boss.
But this book is really less about people and more about systems, how managers have squeezed productivity from workers and efficiency from buildings. Saval covers the rise of the skyscraper, the suburban office park, even the origins of the jargon that people in business speak and he manages to make all of it interesting and interconnected.
I was prepared to hate this book. There are a lot of books about work. They are almost uniformly boring, biographies of executives, self-help books for middle managers, but "Cubed" offers something different, an entertaining look at the history of the modern worker that the modern worker can actually learn from.
CORNISH: The book is "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace" by Nikil Saval. Our reviewer is Rosecrans Baldwin.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.