As we are heading into the Labor Day weekend, some of us will have some time off. Restaurant workers, preachers, many health care providers, law enforcement personnel, those who work in the media, and those in retail may have to work extra hours this weekend to commemorate the significance of their labor. And those of us whose wages are on the lower end can’t afford to decline any overtime we might be offered.
Some people romanticize bookstore work, but our staff could quickly tell you about the difficulties here day by day. We are looking to hire a new staff member here and find it hard to even know what to call the opening. “Sales associate” sounds so antiseptic but I’m allergic to trendy monikers like “dream weaver.” Whatever we call the multi-tasking team here that keeps this ship afloat – Kimberlee, Amy, Patti, Robin, and Diana, the mail-out queen that wraps your packages so carefully – Beth and I are grateful beyond words. I know some of you are too, knowing that their love for books, people, and God’s Kingdom conspires to serve you well. Their work is worth much more than they are paid. While we don’t do this bookstore ministry for the acclaim, we are grateful for and to those customers and fans that notice. Thank you for caring about our work and for being a part of our story here.
Writers and readers and the booksellers that bring them together, yes, but there are so many more who are involved. We are grateful for publishers, printers, bookkeepers, sales reps and marketers, truck drivers who transport the cartons of books, the critics and reviewers and those who tweet and blog, those who tell others about good books they love. But also thank God for the manufacturing plants that make the paper — who manufactures the ink, and where, I wonder? who made the conveyor belts and loading docks at the distribution centers? who wrote the ad that caught your attention or the back cover copy? We daily praise God for the gifts of the artists that designed the books covers, even if we debate the wisdom of their aesthetic choices sometimes. Thank God for it all, this wild, beautiful, life-changing business of books. We celebrate the many, many good writers whose work grace our shelves, but you – the readers! – are what it is finally all about. Without you buying the books, the whole process falls like a house of cards.
Which reminds us — we all should thank our elementary teachers or parents who taught us to read in the first place, and those other teachers and mentors who inspired us to want to remain readers and life-long learners.
So, thanks be for all who play their part in this exciting story.
You probably know that I’ve compiled a number of lists of good books about the work-world, and have written essays about why church leaders should attend to the callings and careers of the congregants.
I invite you to read or review this good list, or this post (where I have a James Taylor video and talk about Tim Keller’s important book.) The prices may have changed a bit since I first listed them (some books that were hardback are now maybe available in paperback, say.) Still, maybe you could share it with somebody who might find it helpful.
Today, I want to tell you about two more recent books, although a few others may come up in passing. It’s my job, ya know.
Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace by David Zweig (Portfolio) $16.00 our sale price = $12.80
The behind the scenes complexity of the writing, manufacturing and distribution and selling of books, and the various folks and institutions that contribute to our book industry that I mentioned above reminds me of a book I’m reading, Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace by David Zweig. It is well written and really fascinating, and it would be a great book to read on the heels of Beth Macy’s Factory Man that I reviewed in our last post. Those called “invisibles,” in Zweig’s study, are those who work with exceptional excellence, behind the scenes, and are meticulous. They savor responsibility but are ambivalent about recognition.
Invisibles are, for Zweig — who starting thinking about all this during his stint as fact-checker for The Atlantic — not the same as the also interesting and worthy folks who are merely unsung, the hard-working and under-valued cogs in the machine, those that work hard at their daily grind. Rather, these folks are often passionate, creative, influential, and at the top of their field, even though hardly anyone knows who they are (unless they mess up. In the fact-checking world, the only time one is known is if a slip-up is made and one’s professional status is inversely related to one’s being known.)
He has fascinating chapters on guys who work in recording studios – his opening riff on one of the most famous opening drum-beats in all of rock and rock and the recording engineer that achieved that sound was an instant hook for this baby boomer – and on the full-time guy whose job it is to keep the rare Steinway at the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Heinz Hall in tune. He looks at the skills and the psychology and the impact of professionals whose job it is, in many ways, to disappear. Think not of the famous, much-appreciated heart surgeon, but the anesthesiologist. There’s a chapter on a significant United Nations translator whose name you do not know but who participated in forging treaties you have, the guitar tech for Radiohead who you might have seen lurking in the wings of an arena show, and a great chapter on the guy who designs directional signs for airports. (Wow, who knew how very detailed that is, from the font selections to the shape of the signage, color and all sorts of other variables that help us navigate these large built environments.) Architectural work comes up, of course, since it is obvious that as we inhabit spaces, we feel differently in different places – you may know that great book The Poetics of Space and somebody worked hard to design and create and build the details of those spaces.
Douglas Rushkoff says that ‘This will change the way you see the world and, hopefully, your place in it.”
As the Kirkus Reviews put it, “In Zweig’s fascinating world, the limelight doesn’t hold a candle to the satisfaction of hard work well done.”
Adam Grant, who wrote a tremendous book on leadership called Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (which is itself very much worth reading), really gets what this book brings to us, where it points, and why it can be so helpful. He says it is “an excellent book” and then notes that,
Invisibles “is a clarion call to work as a craft: for generously sharing knowledge without hogging credit and prizing meaningful work above public recognition.
This correlates well with Grant’s own research about being a “giver” and about generosity in the workplace. It is nearly an expression of what some of us call “servant leadership.”
Jean Twenge, a brilliant sociologist and cultural critic (she wrote The Narcissism Epidemic) says of it,
Invisibles is a one-book cultural revolution, fighting the current cultural tide toward narcissistic self-promotion with the truth that real satisfaction is often silent.
And here is the bigger thing about this book, which was hinted at in each of these endorsements: those who eschew fame and glory but give themselves to mindful, quality work have found a way to not just be successful at work but to craft a meaningful life; their temperaments or values or posture have allowed them to find a way of being in the world that is wise and good and often beautiful. As the Los Angeles Times puts it, these folks, “have cracked the code for a meaningful life.”
Not unlike the next book I will describe, Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace is not just a fascinating book about the jobs some people have, or even about how they pursue their work with diligence and expertise, but it a book about finding meaning and purpose. I’m glad for those that can enjoy their jobs, sung or unsung, but, more, who can point us towards new ways of thinking about our lives and how we measure success.
Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure Nancy J. Nordenson (Kalos Press) $14.95 our sale price = $11.96
I have extolled this book in several previous posts and have briefly described it before at here at BookNotes. I am very enthusiastic about it, and of its publisher, Kalos, and want to be a champion of it because it is a truly, truly extraordinary book. The raves have been from important writers (Image editor, Gregory Wolfe, poet and writer Luci Shaw, Brett Lott, Leslie Leyland Fields, Marcus Goodyear of The High Calling blog.) Finding Livelihood is not at all common, it is beyond uncommon. It is not just good. It is nothing short of extraordinary and I doubt if you have ever read a book quite like it. It is wise, thoughtful, literary, poetic, full of stories – stories that are often exceptionally mundane but made exceptionally meaningful by Nancy Nordenson’s extraordinary prose.
My own writing abilities, I am afraid, cannot rise to the quality that this luminous book deserves. I will tell you just a few things to pique your interest.
Firstly, as I have suggested, Nordenson is a great writer. She can weave sentences and paragraphs in creative ways that are pure joy to read if you enjoy the beauty of words well chosen and stories well told. She tells us – warns us? – early on that the book has a lyric style, a nonlinear structure. It includes “white space, metaphor, and slant-angle perspective.”
“It is a way of exploring, not a way of explaining,” she states. “Lyric structure bypasses the default problem-solving logic of self-help books and the chronologic reportage of memoir to more closely mimic the nature of a complex issue that can’t be resolved in ten easy steps but can be seen and understood in new ways when explored from multiple directions. Lyric style finds clues and layers them or braids them together.”
I said to Beth as I was reading some of this out loud that some of it brings to mind a collection of very short stories. There is this thread, this episode, this situation, this scene or smell or memory and, sometimes almost suddenly, it is over, and Nordenson moves on to another page. Ahh, but pay attention: that anecdote or story or image just may reappear, bringing a glorious “a-ha” moment – so that is why she was telling us so much about the airplane, that is why the giving blood episode was so important. Now I get the resonance of inventions, Bach’s two-part ones and more. Only a writer who has practiced her craft and a seasoned storyteller and wide-eyed thinker can pull this stuff off. Her prose, and the construction of the book itself, is masterful.
“On yellowed college-ruled paper, in bright blue ink and the kind of loop-de-loop handwriting that betrays an earnestness just short of maturity, are pages of notes I took long ago from a professor’s talk on career advice…” The advice she recalls is good, and it loop-de-loops around itself — questions about calling and money, worry and study, discovery and self-awareness, labor and leisure — but I cite this sentence because I loved the observation (and her candor) about her handwriting and how it betrayed “an earnestness just short of maturity.”
Every page has stuff like that — phrases and insights that make you catch your breath and smile.
And, yes, her youthful imaginations of finding a career (not to mention some of the odd jobs she’s actually had) loop around and back again. There’s some great work-related storytelling — she was a teen fashion model for a local department story years ago and her telling is wonderful. This book itself was started, however, oddly, when her husband unexpectedly lost his own job, so un and underemployment is part of the journey as well. In one perceptive, serious aside she notes, powerfully,
I’ve heard it said that people do what they do because they can’t think of alternative, but viable alternatives are hard to come by. Winds of recession or depression have been blowing through these streets, and no mark of Passover exemption has been made on my doorpost.
As a writer and storyteller, Nordenson really can set the stage, and a lot of this book (as she promised) offers exploration, not explaining. It isn’t exactly memoir, but I hate to call it essay, as her chapters mostly do not sound polemical. Perhaps it is called literary essay.
I live under the roar of airplanes. A flight path to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport extends in a trajectory overhead. More often than not, the planes are on their final descent. A 757, DC9, or Boeing Airbus flying over my backyard passes northwest to southeast in the time it takes for me to say “I wonder where they’ve been.” Looking up I can see a plane’s underbelly, flat and smooth like a shark’s. I can see its strand of windows and the logo on the fuselage or wing. I can see the plane’s nose, where in the cockpit the pilot lowers and steers the body of aluminum and plastic, slicing through the sky. Then it’s gone, toward the runway only minutes ahead. The engine rumble lingers, like the thunder that travels through space long after lightning flashes.
I don’t know if it was the line about the plane being gone in the “time it takes me to say…” or the bit about the plane’s underbelly being “flat and smooth like a shark’s.” Or that great sadness about the engine rumbling “like thunder that travels through space long after lightning flashes” but I was moved by this passage.
And I was struck by the non-sequitur that followed.
“It is Holy Week.”
And, to spoil just a little of the fun, it was not exactly a non-sequitur, although it took a few pages to figure it out.
Holy Week edges toward Good Friday, and at the grocery store down the street the food was heaped in glorious display: asparagus, broccoli, celery red delicious and granny smith apples, potatoes for scalloping and mashing, hams, and turkeys. My grocery list stated needs, but how I long for something more than necessity to seduce me. Hot cross buns and marshmallow chicks; white lilies and fuchsia azaleas; cinnamon and cloves. Someone has placed mounds of green, yellow, and blue plastic grass along the inside of the deli counter with two pastel-dyed eggs in every third mound, perhaps the woman who sliced the smoked turkey for me, thin for sandwiches.
I notice that she wants something “more than necessity to seduce me” and that she notices someone who has done (“invisible”?) work. Perhaps it was the woman who sliced the smoked turkey who had placed the plastic grass in the deli case?
So it goes in this lyric, luminous work, mostly about work, but also about something “more than necessity.”
Nordenson herself works hard, with a notable amount of stress, as a freelance medical writer. I learned more about her job then I would have imagined wanting to know, and found myself talking with Beth late at night about her medical research writing projects and the complexities of her craft. (She tells which keys are worn on her keypad, and how her muscle memory allows her to continue to type, even though she is confused when she tries to look for the nonexistent letters on the most-used keys. She tells how at some medical conferences the microphones have to be exceedingly fine-tuned as every syllable, number, and decimal is essential to transcribe perfectly. )
Her work involves meeting with medical researchers, learning the arcane work they do, and helping write case studies for use in medical education. One riff on who gets the credit in documentation — “First Author, et Al., Ad Infinitum” the chapter is called – -brings to mind Zweig’s Invisibles and Grant’s Give and Take, but is much more lyrical. She reports one small episode as part of a longer exploration of credit and acclaim that I not only enjoyed, but found captivating:
A tag sewn on the inside lining of a favorite summer handbag bears a name printed in indelible ink: “Romana Z~”, the R like scissors, the Z like a rippled thread. Romana, a woman I’ve never met, sewed this backpack-type handbag of green and gold wheat-print cotton with an indigo denim cord that I bought on the sidewalk at Bleecker and Carmine in Greenwich Village on a sunny September day. Wendy Luker sold me the bag. She and I talked for a while as I fingered fabrics and tested shoulder straps. She told me she started Wendyloo Handbags as a recovery effort after the strain of graduate school. She intentionally gives honor and dignity to women who work for her as seamstresses by having each one sign the bags she sews. Thus, Romana’s name is signed on my bag.
Where she goes with this is deeply moving, and the chapter is a great one. It meanders through her own work, her observations of how different sort of scholars and professionals treat others, offering some notice to the invisibles all around us, and to those who perhaps do not want to be noticed due to their own tragic past or mental illness.
Ms. Nordenson writes within the Roman Catholic tradition, I gather, and this seems to influence her work in two lovely ways. Firstly, she is a religious contemplative, or so it seems, and there is a prayerfulness to this volume, a spirituality that pervades her longings for good work well done. There are other books that are direct about this matter of finding God in the work-world, books that offer clues to spiritual formation for and in the marketplace, thinking Christianly about vocation and call, developing a Christian viewpoint, even, but this is less obvious than that. She does want life to be more seamless, not just to find paid work but to sense a call, to discover meaning in our days. Livelihood. She does ruminate quite a bit on Josef Pieper’s classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture (and in a simple reminder of its post-World War II context helped me understand it more than I had.) Her point in all of this is profound, but not evangelistic on the face of it; Why is Pieper’s message so urgent? She answers her own question in italics: To be human.
Besides this spirituality of being fully human, an Earthy spirituality, if you will, and the subsequent human and humane view of culture, work, and leisure, her use of a way of thinking and arguing that seems particularly Catholic is sometimes used: like Aquinas in the Summa she has a few chapters that are making arguments pro and con, for and against a proposition at hand. (And, yes, she does cite Aquinas, and Aristotle, so there.) Of course, she is a creative contemplative and a poetic writer, so even in these bullet-pointed lists, there is elegance and eloquence. But in a few chapters, at least, she makes her quandary known and argues it through: for instance, is it or is it not proper to think about money when discerning a calling?
So, between stories and parables and reflections and ruminations, this fine book does cover some points, which should be helpful for those who feel that, otherwise, such a memoir might be pointless. Yes or no, she thinks it though, how about this, or maybe it is that. She isn’t terribly conclusive, but she does bring some solid stuff, inviting us to ponder it deeply.
But then, quick as can be, she’s back to her lyrical prose.
“I have recently read the most beautiful phrase: a beholding that ascends,” she exclaims. It comes from Pavel Florensky, a late nineteenth century Russian scientist and ordained Orthodox priest. I love her succinct aside about him:
Florensky’s dream was to be a monk, but rather than have him waste his scientific training, his bishop refused to give him the required blessing. Instead of a life of monastic contemplation, he reported for daily duty as head of research at a plastics plant and to university lecture halls where he taught physics and engineering wearing his cassock, cross, and priest’s cap while under the watchful eye of the Kremlin authorities.
Fr. Florensky the scientist and engineer and physics professor “ended up on a train to a Siberian gulag, where he died four years later, but not before he wrote those words – a beholding that ascends.”
I cannot quote the whole page here, but she writes beautifully and profoundly in attempting this beholding in her own work as medical writer. And she wonders what it may mean to be wholehearted, paying attention (to receive, to pay attention, to wait.)
I am placing blank index cards and a pad of paper alongside my work, in the cracks between the journals articles on blood gone wrong, PowerPoint slides on hepatitis, and meeting notes on bone cancer. For seconds or minutes, I am stopping the words that are usually in my head during a workday – faster, harder, better, longer – and practicing writing about something other than disease. Practicing building bridges with words from seen to unseen and back again. Practicing seeing bridges already here. Practicing crossing the bridges found.
There is more to tell about Finding Livelihood but I suspect you already are attracted to it, or perhaps not.
I will quickly admit that it is not the same sort of books as the must-read, essential works that I most often recommend, books such as those on that previously mentioned list, including, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller & Katherine Leary Aldorf (Dutton), Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work by Tom Nelson (Crossway), Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor by Ben Witherington (Eerdmans), God at Work: Living Every Day with Purpose by Ken Costa (Alpha), Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture by R. Paul Stevens and his majestic The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (both published by Eerdmans) or The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs by Sebastian Traeger & Greg Gilbert (Zondervan.) Ms. Nordenson cites Miroslav Volf’s important book about a theology of work based on charisms, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Wipf & Stock.)
An aside: she is not referring to these good books, I really don’t think she is, but I do find it glorious that in one chapter she laments that few books can help with a certain aspect of her quest and writes,
Go to the library or bookstore, and find the books that comprise the literature of work. Steer clear of the books shelved in the business or self-help sections, the books with the gleaming covers that shout in forceful red or authoritative blue, with tips on how to manage your time, get promoted, or dress for success, their pages decorated with bullet points, diagrams, and action boxes. Find the books with paintings or drawings on their covers and on the shelves designated for art or nature or philosophy, theology, spirituality or literature. No bullet points punctuate their pages, nor do they lend themselves to PowerPoint presentations.
Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure perhaps presumes some basic awareness of the faith and work conversations and the high calling we have to serve God in all of life including our vocations and careers and jobs. But it isn’t didactic about the dignity of work or the need to be agents of God’s transforming vision. Rather, it just dances around with us through it all, and shows us how this all works for her, and how it doesn’t. And, to be clear, it is as much about finding a way of life, a view of work and rest, of failure and success, of meaning and insight. She draws on Simone Weil, she quotes George MacDonald, she helps us appropriate Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Sacrament of the Present Moment, and does a wonderful meditation on Ezekiel’s question about the bones and her son’s experience with some seriously broken bones. Is there a hope born of brokenness?
You see, this is something important about this book: without hitting us hard over the head with it, she does attend to, she honors, the brokenness. Her husband painfully lost his job before the end of the first chapter, you’ll recall. She doesn’t romanticize or glorify this quest to find a spirituality of vocation.
In fact, if I may cut to a chase – not the only chase as there is so much going on in Finding Livelihood – she has on some occasions summarized the book as a critique or deconstruction of the famous Frederick Buechner quote about finding our vocation “where our great gladness and the world’s great needs meet.” She is eloquent and nuanced about it all, but let’s face it: for many of us, on many days, at least, work does not offer us much gladness nor does it help the world all that much. Mr. Buechner’s beloved line? Maybe meh.
In a final word she thanks us for reading her book and then sends us off with “a challenge and a benediction.” The challenge includes this:
Consider your own experiences of work, no matter whether your work falls short of or far exceeds where you thought you’d go in this life. You are at once worker, witness, and narrator, protagonist and minor character. Write your experiences. Aim for twenty stories, images, or people that fill a place of permanency in your memory. Fill a notebook, a stock of index cards, or an electronic file. Scribble in the margins your longings and disappointments, your passion and needs your aspirations and limits, the tension of your planned life and your given life.
She wants us to take a “long contemplative look.”
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