Libcom.org’s reading guide on literature with a focus on work and accurate representations of working class life, culture and resistance to power.
Post Office – The job as a postal worker is a thankless one as Bukowski tries to keep his sanity delivering mail around Los Angeles.
Factotum – Bukowski recounts the conditions in 1944 having faced rejection from the draft, yo-yoing in and out of employment.
Ham on Rye – Semi-autobiographical ‘coming-of-age’ novel, telling the story of a young man growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
Rivethead – Down and out memoirs of an assembly line worker for GM Motors over the 1980s. In amongst co-workers going postal in the local bar, drinking on the job and witnessing mental breakdowns, Hamper wrote the book during his shifts on the shop floor.
A Farewell to Arms – Anti-militarist novel set against the backdrop of the Italian campaign during World War One, based largely on Hemingwey’s experiences in the war.
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Novel about a young American dynamiter in the International Brigades attached to a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. A great novel, though Hemingwey regurgitates many of the Stalinist myths about the Civil War.
Ursula Le Guin
The dispossessed – Sci-fi classic telling the story of life on a planet run along anarchist principles.
The Four Ways to Forgiveness – Novel about two planets called Yeowe and Werel and the struggle for freedom between the “owners” and “assets”.
Break their Haughty Power – The true story of 13-year-old Joe Murphy, chased out of his hometown by anti-Catholic bigots, who became a union organiser for the IWW. The novel takes us through lynch-mob assaults on Wobblies in Washington in 1919, the nationwide railroad strike of 1922 and the Colorado coal miners’ strike of 1927.
Going Away – Autobiographical novel about a worker who, after being fired from his job, drives from LA to New York, drinking booze, having romantic encounters, visiting important sites of US working class history and listening to car radio news accounts of the unravelling events of the Hungarian Revolution.
Oil! – Loose source for the film There Will Be Blood, Oil! pits oil tycoon father against socialist sympathetic son in the midst of the Teapot Dome Scandal and unionising trouble on the fields.
The Jungle – Sinclair’s undercover journalism-cum-novel about the conditions of America’s meat packing industry and the effect it had on those that worked it.
The Grapes of Wrath – Steinbeck’s realist masterpiece looking at the plight of a family of tenant farmers forced to leave Oklahoma during the Great Depression.
In Dubious Battle – Story about two Communists who set out to organise a strike of seasonal fruit pickers in California.
Of Mice and Men – Classic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant farm workers travelling around the US searching for work during the Great Depression.
Standing Fast – A story of an interlinking group of radicals spanning from before World War II, through the war and then into the early 1960s, including a fictionalised account of the 1946 Oakland general strike.
Slaughterhouse 5 – Vonnegut’s darkly humourous novel recounting the story of an ill-prepared soldier and the grim reality of the Second World War.
Jailbird – Story of a man recently released from prison after serving time for his role in the Watergate scandal, while discussing the history of the American labour movement, political system and the ‘Red Scare’ of the late 1950s.
Player Piano – Vonnegut’s novel about a permanantly unemployed working class, dispossessed by mangerial engineers and automation.
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner – Grimly humourous portrayal of life on an oil refinery, by an ex-refinery worker, from the high towers from which a worker falls to his death to the secret hiding places the workers keep for themselves.
The House that was Eureka – Novel about the Unemployed Workers’ Movement & anti-eviction riots Sydney during the great depression, which flashes back and forth to Sydney in the 1980s, making contemporary links between the eras.
The Watcher and the Watched – Working class novel set in 1960s Newcastle, in which we watch a working class community get ripped apart from the point of view of Tim ‘Tiger’ Mason, who eventually confronts a slum landlord and joins a young Asian immigrant to confront racism.
Kiddar’s Luck – Vivid autobiography about his life growing up next to the train-sheds his father worked in on the outskirts of Newcastle, the book is a natural depiction of a working class boy growing up, seen through the eyes of the socialist adult he became.
Hard Times – Dickens’ work highlighting the difficult economic and social conditions of the working class, described as a “passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world” (though also containing anti-trade union sentiments).
A Tale of Two Cities – Novel about the plight of the French peasantry in the years leading up to the French revolution, and the parallels with life in London.
Jude the Obscure – The story of Jude Fawley, a young working-class man whose dreams of becoming a scholar are destroyed by class society.
How Late is Was, How Late – Novel following Sammy, a shoplifter and ex-convict from Glasgow who, after a two-day drinking binge, gets into a fight with some plainclothes policemen in which he is severely beaten and left blind. The story explores how he comes to terms with his new disability.
The Busconductor Hines – Story of a busconducter living in a bedsit, bored of his job and fully aware his plans to emigrate to Australia won’t come to anything. However, he takes solace in his wife and child, and his eccentric, anarchic imagination.
Homage to Catalonia – Orwell’s famous 1938 account of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, from his point of view as a volunteer in the POUM militia, with vivid descriptions of classless anarchist Barcelona following the revolution and terrorised Stalinist Barcelona after the counter-revolution.
Animal Farm, a fairy story – Erroneously considered a damning of collectivism, Orwell’s allegorical fantasy is a critique of the Bolshevist and Stalinist regimes set on a farm as animals attempt to create a society.
1984 – A world with constant surveillance, perpetual war and a militarised police state, George Orwell’s most famous novel was a warning against totalitarian governments, all the more relevant now then when it was written.
Down and Out in Paris and London – Tramping memoirs from Orwell, where he worked in Paris as a dishwasher and then travelled around London, going from one bedsit to another.
The Road to Wigan Pier – Orwell’s examinations of the conditions for the working class in the north of England prior to World War Two and how he became a socialist.
Keep the aspidistra flying – Not wanting to be concerned with money or a safe life typified by a house with an aspidistra plant, a copywriter quits his job to become an artist.
GB84 – Fictional portrayal of the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike, describing the insidious workings of the British government and MI5, the coalfield battles and the dwindling powers of the miners’ union.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Short story about a teenager from a blue-collar area of Nottingham with bleak prospects who turns to long-distance running to escape both emotionally and physically from his situation.
Swing Hammer Swing – Novel set during 1960s Glasgow, in which Thomas Clay faces his mounting problems: his wife in the maternity hospital prematurely while they await news of their transfer to high-rise housing, or for his tenement to be demolished beneath his feet. With no job and his novel still unpublished, he staggers from crisis to crisis.
The Devil’s Carousel – Story of a Scottish car factory and the strange characters in it, including a smelly militant shop steward and ‘the Martians': experts and managers who convene high above the shop floor and decide how to build cars without letting the work force in on the secret.
The ragged trousered philanthropists – A Marxist critique of society dressed up as a novel, Ragged Trousered Philanthrophists follows construction worker Frank Owen trying to convince others about socialism, a figure based on Tressell himself.
The Good Soldier Švejk – Satirical anti-war novel in which the absurdity and hypocrisy of the military, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the church are repeatedly revealed through the main character’s enthusiasm for obeying authority.
The Trial – Franz Kafka’s seminal novel, telling the tale of a respectable functionary in a bank, who is suddenly arrested and must defend his innocence against a charge about which he can get no information.
Germinal – Zola’s masterpiece exposing the inhuman conditions of miners in France in 1860s. This powerful novel follows a young worker who enters a mining community and leads a strike against pay cuts
The treasure of the Sierra Madre – B. Traven’s best known novel about three men prospecting for gold in the mountains of Mexico, and the things it drives them to do.
The cotton pickers – B Traven’s novel about migrant labourers, poverty, crappy jobs, and the occasional successful strike in 1920s Mexico.
The death ship – Story of a sailor who loses his papers and, unable to prove his very existence, ends up working on a “death ship” destined to be sunk for the insurance money.
Assembly Line – Short story about a New York businessman who meets a Mexican peasant basket maker, whose talent is perfect for exploitation.
Out of the Night – The story of a German revolutionary who, after the failed German revolution, becomes an agent for the Communist International, fights fascism in Europe, gets captured by the Gestapo and eventually loses his faith in Stalin.
Strumpet City – Novel following the lives of a dozen different characters as they are swept up in the tumultuous events of Dublin between 1907 and 1914, including the 1913 Dublin Lockout.
The Unseen – Novel looking at the Italian Autonomia movement of the 1960s-70s through the eyes of a single working-class protagonist, from high-school rebellion, squatting, setting up a free radio station to arrest and the brutalities of imprisonment.
Two Short Stories – The first story, Let a thousand hands reach out to pick up the gun, is a montage of newspaper reports of the death of Mara Cagol, one of the founders of the Red Brigades. The second, FIAT, is a first-hand account of work (or its refusal) at the infamous FIAT plant in Turin, Italy.
Luther Blisset/Wu Ming
Q – Set during the 16th Century Reformation, a radical Christian heretic takes part in rebellions – such as the German Peasants’ War – against the powers of both Protestant and Catholic churches.
Altai – Sequel to Q, in which characters from the first book come back to settle old scores, as the Republic of Venice and the whole 16th Century world order seem ready to crumble.
Manituana – Fantastically researched historical fiction about the Iroquois, a group of native American tribes who side with the British during the American war in independence.
54 – Hollywood actors, cold warriors, mobsters, drug dealers and homing pigeons. What will Yugoslavian president Tito do, now that Joe Stalin is dead? What is the hidden link between Lucky Luciano in his Italian exile, Cary Grant in schizophrenic combat with himself and a stolen TV set which turns out to be self-conscious and sensitive to boot?
The Path to the Spiders’ Nests – The story of a cobbler’s apprentice in a town on the Ligurian coast, who steals a pistol from a Nazi sailor, and becomes involved in the Italian Resistance.
The White Tiger – A darkly humourous story of a boy from an Indian slum who moves to Delhi and works as the chauffeur for a rich landlord, before killing him and running off with his money.
A Fine Balance – Story set in Mumbai between 1975 and 1984 during a period of increased government power and crackdowns on civil liberties called ‘The Emergency’, looking at the changes in Indian society since independence.
Men Who Live on the Sea – Story about the terrible factory conditions faced by workers processing fish on Japanese factory ships.
The Prostitute – Short story demonstrating gender tensions within the workers’ movement, in which a prostitute asserts her own subjective experience as a working class woman.
Militarized Streets – Novel about the ‘Jinan Incident’, an early armed clash between Japan and China, and severe military aggression of the Japanese in the incident.
Miner – Story of a miner’s resistance to the authority of his tyrannical employers.
Mother – Novel following the radicalisation of an uneducated young Russian woman, which went on to define the genre of Socialist Realism.
Birth of Our Power – Pan-European novel, taking us from the workers’ stronghold of Barcelona at the end of the First World War where hopes for revolution are fueled by the news of revolution in Russia.
Men in Prison – Based on his personal experiences as a political prisoner, Serge describes the brutality of prison life at the beginning of the 20th century.
Conquered City – Masterpiece describing the defence of Petrograd from the White Armies during the Russian revolution, capturing the atmosphere without the use of a central character.
The Case of Comrade Tulayev – Masterful fictionalisation of the purges and how they affected the various character types in the political upheaval of Stalinist Russia.