A Secret History of the Workplace
By Nikil Saval
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385536578, 368pp.)
Publication Date: April 22, 2014
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You mean this place we go to five days a week has a history? Cubed reveals the unexplored yet surprising story of the places where most of the world's work—our work—gets done. From "Bartleby the Scrivener" to The Office, from the steno pool to the open-plan cubicle farm, Cubed is a fascinating, often funny, and sometimes disturbing anatomy of the white-collar world and how it came to be the way it is—and what it might become.
In the mid-nineteenth century clerks worked in small, dank spaces called “counting-houses.” These were all-male enclaves, where work was just paperwork. Most Americans considered clerks to be questionable dandies, who didn’t do “real work.” But the joke was on them: as the great historical shifts from agricultural to industrial economies took place, and then from industrial to information economies, the organization of the workplace evolved along with them—and the clerks took over. Offices became rationalized, designed for both greater efficiency in the accomplishments of clerical work and the enhancement of worker productivity. Women entered the office by the millions, and revolutionized the social world from within. Skyscrapers filled with office space came to tower over cities everywhere. Cubed opens our eyes to what is a truly "secret history" of changes so obvious and ubiquitous that we've hardly noticed them. From the wood-paneled executive suite to the advent of the cubicles where 60% of Americans now work (and 93% of them dislike it) to a not-too-distant future where we might work anywhere at any time (and perhaps all the time), Cubed excavates from popular books, movies, comic strips (Dilbert!), and a vast amount of management literature and business history, the reasons why our workplaces are the way they are—and how they might be better.
Nikil Saval is an editor of n+1. He lives in Philadelphia. This is his first book. His first two real jobs were as an editorial assistant in publishing companies—in cubicles.
The office has long been seen as a symbol of boredom: It's a killer of spirits, a destroyer of spontaneity. But reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin says a new book brings out its entertaining side. More at NPR.org
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The new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, is a look at how the white-collar world came to be the way it is, and what it might become. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with author Nikil Saval. More at NPR.org
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Praise for Cubed:
"... Excellent ... fresh and intellectually omnivorous ... Saval is a vigorous writer, and a thoughtful one. What puts him above the rank of most nonfiction authors, even some of the better ones, is that he doesn’t merely present information. He turns each new fact over in his mind, right in front of you, holding it to the light."
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Cubed is...a pleasure to read: beautifully written and clearly organized. Since many Americans now, women as well as men, spend more than half their waking hours at work, it's also an important exploration."
—Richard Sennett, The New York Times Book Review
"Lush, funny, and unexpectedly fascinating ... [G]enius ... Cubed stands as one of those books readers can open to any page and find the kind of insight they’ll want to yank strangers out of their bus or subway seats and repeat ... [A] beautifully written, original, and essential masterpiece."
—Jerry Stahl, Bookforum
"There are a lot of books about work... but Cubed offers something different: an entertaining look at the history of the modern worker that the modern worker can actually learn from."
—Rosecrans Baldwin, NPR
"Impressive... Beautifully written... delightfully readable..."
—Martin Filler, The New York Review of Books
"Thorough and diligent...Saval works hard, and effectively, to demonstrate how the evolution of workspaces paralleled social shifts in the workforce that we’re still living out.... Saval is a tireless researcher, and he turns phrases with a flair that would get an Organization Man fired."
—Jennifer Howard, The Washington Post Book World
"... Cleverly pieced together...subtle and sophisticated."
—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
"Nikil Saval's new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, is a fascinating guide to the intellectual history of the American office. Part cultural history, part architectural analysis and part management theory—with some labor economics, gender studies and pop culture thrown in for good measure—the book is a smart look at the evolution of the place where we spend so much of our lives."
—The Washington Post
"In his first book, Saval sets out to chronicle the evolution of the American office from airless prison to what it is today, reflecting upon the transformation of the office worker from emasculated novelty to unremarkable figure of ubiquity. To accomplish this, he synthesizes an impressive number of books, films, articles, and first-person accounts relating to the daunting number of historical forces and ideologies that have shaped white-collar work: architecture, philosophy, labor disputes, class conflict, the women’s movement, and technological advances, just to name a few. Saval considers each of them, forming a cogent and compelling narrative that could very easily have been scattered or deathly dull. To keep things lively, Saval deploys deft analytical skills and a tone that’s frequently bemused, making difficult and important concepts palatable to the casual reader."
—The Boston Globe
"Over the past week, as I've been carrying around a copy of Nikil Saval's Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, I've gotten some quizzical looks. 'It's a history of the office,' I'd explain, whereupon a good number of people would respond, 'Well, that sounds boring.' It isn't. In fact, Cubed is anything but... Saval's book glides smoothly between his two primary subjects: the physical structure of offices and the social institutions of white-collar work over the past 150 years or so. Cubed encompasses everything from the rise of the skyscraper to the entrance of women in the workplace to the mid-20th-century angst over grey-flannel-suit conformity to the dorm-like 'fun' workplaces of Silicon Valley. His stance is skeptical, a welcome approach given that most writings on the contemporary workplace are rife with dubious claims to revolutionary innovation—office design or management gimmicks that bestselling authors indiscriminately pounce on like magpies seizing glittering bits of trash."
"Five days a week I commute to a skyscraper in the main business district of a large city and sit at a desk within whispering distance of another desk. Whatever the word 'work' used to conjure, my version is now quite standard. About 40 million Americans make a living in some sort of cubicle. Are we happy about that? The likelihood that we are not is central to Nikil Saval's impressive debut, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace."
—The New Republic
"... Formidable ... Beautifully rendered ... Sections of the book shine—especially when it discusses gender in the workplace ... The elegance of his prose and the intensity of his moral commitment linger."
"... Cubed is so stimulating, so filled with terrific material and shrewd observations, that it’s a must-read for anyone pondering how America arrived at its current state of white-collar under-employment and economic insecurity."
—The Daily Beast
"...[A] sharp and absorbing history of the office."
"Saval's book... stands out as one of the best pop histories to come out in years, and on a topic that most of us (statistically speaking) can relate to."
"[An] absorbing history of office life...It sits cheerily between the academic and the journalistic register...Saval's style is nicely spiked with colloquialism... [His] debunking temper serves him well."
"... An entertaining read ... Saval's readings of pop culture representations of the office and its workers add a lively and ironic perspective."
"Ferociously lucid and witty."
"A sprightly historical tour of the vexed, overplanned world of the modern workplace."
—In These Times
“Why did no one write this necessary book before now? Never mind: it wouldn’t have been as good. Cubed has that combination of inevitability and surprise that marks the best writing—and thinking.”
—Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision
“Required reading for anyone who works in an office, and for those fortunate enough to have escaped.”
—Ed Park, author of Personal Days
"Nikil Saval is a superstar! He does for offices what Foucault did for prisons and hospitals, transforming a seemingly static, purely functional, self-evident institution into a rich human story, full of good and bad intentions, chance, and historical forces. Reading Cubed is like watching an amazing magic trick where the very boringness of the office turns out to be what is the most interesting. I found myself wishing he would do waiting rooms next."
—Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed