Work It Out by Laura Raphael

I love my job (I really, really do), but I’ve always been curious about what other people do for a living – how they spend their days, what issues and ideas and conflicts and goals of, say, a tax attorney, or a graphic designer, or a paper salesman. (Well, maybe not the last one. “The Office” pretty much fills that gap in my curiosity.)

Of course, one of the best ways to find out about other careers – without job-shadowing or doing internships – is through reading. I’m constantly learning about the work lives of others through what I read. Here are a few of my favorite books where I learned about jobs I never would have known:

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Steadman
This charming little melodrama of a novel has been tearing up the bestseller charts here and in the author’s native Australia, and while I was transfixed by the central dilemma of the story (I won’t reveal much except to say that it involves a seemingly orphaned baby), one aspect I found particularly interesting was the ins and outs of what it’s like to be a lighthouse keeper… in 1926. The lenses, the meticulous journal-keeping, the general loneliness and isolation: I know all about it now.

Heading Out To Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
Another great story, with wickedly dark (and darkly wicked) implications I’m still thinking about several months after finishing, but again, I learned a lot more about how butchers (at least, butchers in 1940s small-town America) operated. It’s as bloody as you would expect, but there are some surprising tidbits, like how to ensure the cow’s meat will be tender, that made me feel like an expert.

Office Girl by Joe Meno
This is one job I already knew something about from personal experience: administrative office drudgery in the 1990s. Still, it was valuable to see it through the funny, intelligent perspective of a surefooted writer. It also made me very happy I left that particular part of my working life behind.

Gone by Cathi Hanauer
Before reading this sensitive and bittersweet novel, I had a vague idea of what sculptors do, but now I can speak with more authority about the entire process, including materials… as well as what it feels like when your artistic vision isn’t clear anymore (and how that affects everything else).

Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium.
This is my only nonfiction title, a collection of very short entries about a variety of jobs – everything from neonatal nurse to pretzel vendor to video game designer, and the result is a fascinating snapshot of the joys and frustrations of Americans’ working lives.


Also, Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan. And on the non-fiction side Nickel and Dimed is still a favorite of mine.

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