Popular books with a work-based theme

Following our survey to find out which books featuring a work theme are the most popular during the autumn of 2016, the results are now in. The top ten are listed below.

To find out more about reading groups, check out the Reading Agency’s tips and case studies by visiting https://readingagency.org.uk/adults/.

1. The most popular: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (1914) by Robert Tressell    

Based on the author's life experiences as a migrant from Ireland, the main character is a socialist who believes that the capitalist system is the real source of the poverty around him.

He tries to convince his fellow workers, but finds that their education has trained them to distrust their own thoughts and to rely on those of their 'superiors'. The book advocates a socialist society in which work is performed to satisfy the needs of all rather than to generate profit for a few. 

2. Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell

The book was written reflecting the Russinan revolution and the development of Stalin's state in the aftermath. The book remained on the Eastern Bloc's forbidden list until the fall of communism in 1989. After the farm animals have overthrown the irresponsible farmer, they set up a utopian Animal state under the motto 'four legs good, two legs bad'.

As time passes and some of the animals become corrupt and self-interested, the motto is replaced by "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others" and "Four legs good, two legs better!", as the pigs taken on human characteristics and set themselves above the other animals.]

It's a book that can be as appealing to children as it can to adults, but it has a dark and sinister strand and aspects of extreme cruelty as the story unfolds. 

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck

Although set in the U.S during the great depression of the 1930's, the book remains current today from the perspectives of people powerless against big business, desperation to survive economically, the survival of family and individual, migrancy, discrimination, worker mobilisation and organising.

Steinbeck also commented on wanting to turn the spotlight on the "greedy bastards" who caused the Depression and the dustbowl in the mid-West, and got away with it; does that sound familiar

4. Billy Liar (1959) and Billy Liar on the Moon (1975) by Keith Waterhouse

Both books are comical with vivid characterisations and great dialogue, but it is the conjuring up of the daily grind of office work that makes these books such a joy. Billy is an undertaker's clerk in the first book, bored to tears and living a vivid fantasy life to distract him from the mundane.

In the second book he works for the local council, underemployed and with little capacity to use his imagination, which he employs in distraction and subversion. Waterhouse is brilliant on the sheer punishing nature of the day to day, but especially on the ways people devise to escape this - office humour, office politics, things that go wrong, key tasks abandoned with disproportionate consequences, office managers inured to the pointlessness of many tasks.

Serious points about the waste of human ingenuity are not lost, and Waterhouse's rich portrayal of people at work still rings true today.

5. Harry's Last Stand (2014) by Harry Leslie Smith

Short, very topical and based mainly in the Yorkshire region, the novel is based mainly on true life stories, and is a timely reminder to young people about working rights, welfare and trade union organisation, and what a society without good public services looks like.

6. The Help (2009) by Katheryn Stockett

Set in the 1960's, the story of the uncovering of exploitation and racial discrimination towards black African workers, especially female house helps, by white employers in Mississippi.

Included is the exposure of legislation that controlled what black  people could and could not do at the time, as well as petty and outrageous standards and attitudes of white people towards their black employees. Enraging throughout, this book can bring tears, smiles, incredulity and frustration with every turn of the page.

7. Bridget Jones' Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding

The films are good, and so are the books. Written in an easy to read manner in the style of a diary over one year. The diary details the working life and relationships amongst other aspects of Bridget's life, thirty-something years old looking for satisfaction in love, work and herself.

Entertaining and very funny. Apparently based on Pride and Prejudice. 

8.  Love on the Dole (1933) by Walter Greenwood

Set in Salford, the novel tells the tale of the young people of the area trying to make a living during very hard times (workers who are set on as apprentices, and then let go rather than being kept on, only to be replaced by younger people/new apprentices, and the effect this has on relationships/community etc).  It was a hit as it resonated with unemployed workers and was made into a successful film starring the young Deborah Kerr.

Apparently it influenced government to look at working practices.  Unfortunately some of the issues it tackles are still with us today (poverty, poor employment etc).

9 = Please, Mister Postman (2014) by Alan Johnson

The second autobiography covering Alan Johnson's life from his first marriage, aged 18, to its end in his mid-30s. During the period he left the slums of west London, moving to a council house in Slough, where he worked for the Post Office and, later, its trade union.

The book depicts work and home life, union matters, social life, and self-admittedly shows an image of the gender roles and expectations back in the 1970's, through to Margaret Thatcher's mission to destroy the unions.

9 =  Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller

Set in a U.S military airbase in the 1950's (think Korea and Vietnam), the title of the book came in to common usage referring to a no-win paradoxical situation. In the book, it is repeatedly used to describe examples of bureaucratic absurdity, the running example being that if an airman is mentally ill they can request not to fly any more missions, but such a request is seen to result from rational thinking and therefore the airman cannot be mentally unstable, and therefore has to fly.

The main character concludes that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because those in power claim it does,it has impact; in reality as it does not exist it cannot be repealed, overthrown, or denounced.