Benjamin Cheever

THE OXFORD BOOK OF WORK. Edited by Keith Thomas. Oxford Univ. Press. 656 pp. $35

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2m 24sec

THE OXFORD BOOK OF WORK. Edited by Keith Thomas. Oxford Univ. Press. 656 pp. $35

The Oxford Book of Work is splendid but for one great flaw—it’s not a book. Certainly it meets the dictionary definition: "a long written or printed work, usu. on sheets of paper fastened or bound together with covers." What’s missing is narrative. This is a volume for dipping into, not for reading straight through. I mention this because I’m a credulous shopper and often deceived.

Thomas, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, has created an anthology— really, a grab bag—of most anything toothsome ever written about work. With the notable exception of rock ’n’ roll lyrics, nary a stone has been left unturned. Economics, philosophy, poetry, fiction, drama—all have been mined, and with happy results.

Take, for instance, this, from a letter written to a friend by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1858: "It has always been because my mind was uncomfortable at home that it sallied abroad to obtain, at any sacrifice, the relief of hard intellectual work. This is the case now. I have no child to enjoy the little noise that my name may make. I do not believe that in such times as these the slightest influence can be obtained by such writings as mine, or even by any writings except by the bad novels, which try to make us still more immoral and illconditioned than we are. Yet I rise at five, and sit for six hours before my paper, and often leave it still white. Sometimes I find what I am looking for, but find it painfully and imperfectly; sometimes I am in despair at not finding it at all."

I choose that excerpt not only because I love it, but because it is characteristic. Thomas wields a generous knife, and so even this slightly trimmed sample has Tocqueville on writing, childlessness, the wretched state of publishing, and the absence of Prozac. Unfortunately, this letter appears not in the section on writing but under the heading "Compensations and Rewards," which brings me to my last gripe: a volume so clearly intended as a reference should be more precisely indexed.

As with any collection of maxims, there are contradictions on work and its rewards. From Noel Coward we hear that "work is much more fun than fun," while C. Wright Mills reports: "Each day men sell little pieces of themselves in order to try to buy them back each night and weekend with the coin of ‘fun’." Still, the book is cleverly constructed, starting with original sin and closing with an Oxford don who said of retirement: "It’s not too bad, but I rather miss the vacations." 

—Benjamin Cheever


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