Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

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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.

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Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Nikil Saval's excellent new book…[is] fresh and intellectually omnivorous…Mr. 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…Mr. Saval is well read. In Cubed he moves with curiosity and ease among writers as disparate as John Dos Passos and Helen Gurley Brown, Lewis Mumford and Thomas Pynchon, Aldous Huxley and Studs Terkel. He is often darkly witty, too.
The New York Times Book Review - Richard Sennett
There is in fact nothing "secret" about this history; from the Civil War on, as the white-collar world grew, managers and designers thought out loud about where workers should sit, the furniture they should use, the walls and windows that should surround them. Instead of a secret history, Saval…has written something more interesting. He has infused a straightforward factual account with all sorts of literary, cultural and political insights; these make the story he tells more dark than dry…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.
Publishers Weekly
Journalist Saval (an editor at n+1) offers a detailed social and cultural history of the white-collar workplace. He narrates the evolution of the office in the first decades of the 20th century and tells how “administration and bureaucracy over the world of business.” Along came the typewriter, vertical file cabinet, managers, and efficiency experts to organize this new class of workers. The most influential and ultimately terrifying of these is Frederick “Speedy” Taylor, the father of the time and motion study, who was responsible for “vast caverns of bull pens and steno pools” and “eventually workers the impression that their work was routine and dead-end.” Saval spends considerable time on the successes and failures of an office’s architecture and design: Frank Lloyd Wright’s radically organized Larkin Building in Buffalo in 1904 somehow leads us to Clive Wilkinson’s Disneyland-like paradise for TBWA/Chiat/Day in 1997. Saval’s readings of pop culture representations of the office and its workers add a lively and ironic perspective. We may have come to the point, Saval suggests, when the office may be disappearing. Self-identified as a “work of synthesis,” the book draws heavily on the credited work of others, so one wonders about the “Secret” of the title. Never mind. The result is an entertaining read. Agent: Edward Orloff, McCormick & Williams. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
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."
The Nation

"... 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."
The Economist

"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."
Fast Company

"[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."
The Guardian

"... An entertaining read ... Saval's readings of pop culture representations of the office and its workers add a lively and ironic perspective."
Publishers Weekly

"Ferociously lucid and witty."
Kirkus Reviews

"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

Library Journal
In 2011, more than 60 percent of employed Americans worked in "some form of a cubicle," states the opening of this book; 93 percent of them, the author goes on to say, disliked the environment in which they worked. Numbers like these, even though their source isn't noted, are startling. How and why did we get to a situation in which the majority of us work in places we don't like? Saval (editor, n+1 magazine) traces the history of the office from 19th-century counting houses (in an opening discussion of Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener") to mid-20th-century skyscraper workplaces ("an especially tall collection of boring offices"), with row after row of desks and the bosses working elsewhere, and on to designer Robert Propst's Action Offices and cubbies. While plenty is said about design styles, even more of the content is the author's social commentary. In Saval's view, management is less concerned with making the office a creative place than with duping employees into thinking that their situation is better than it actually is. VERDICT The prose is lively and sharp. This isn't a scholar's book, but Saval is an acute observer whose tart observations may attract an unexpectedly wide audience.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews
An editor of n +1 offers an illuminating study of the modern office and its antecedents. Many Americans spend most of their working hours in cubicles, but 93 percent of those individuals report disliking their work environments. Yet this Dilbert-esque disgruntlement with office life is nothing new. Saval shows that from the beginning of its existence in the 19th century, cultural observers like Herman Melville and Charles Dickens considered the office a suspect space. The activities that took place there were "weak, empty and above all boring" since they lacked the dynamism of the deal making that went on in the business world they supported. At the same time, the office has also been "a source of some of the most utopian ideas and sentiments about American working life." Through analyses of historical, sociological and cultural texts, Saval examines the double-edged promise that the office has held to American workers over the last 150 years. In the 19th century, life behind a desk offered social respectability and security while providing an apparent refuge from the physical hardships of factory work. As the business world expanded and work became increasingly rationalized for maximum output and efficiency, so did the office. This gave rise to the hyperefficient offices of the 20th century, where managing workers—down to their very movements and behaviors—as well as data and space became a frighteningly exact science. In the 21st century, technological shifts and global economic downturns have wrought still further changes in office life. Freelancers now inhabit homes and cafes, transforming leisure and living spaces into work spaces. These developments have not only stripped office professionals of the illusion of security; in a wickedly ironic, but perhaps predictable, historical twist, they have also cast them back into the "contingency and precariousness" from which the office was supposed to save them. Ferociously lucid and witty.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Considering the amount of time Americans spend "at the office," it comes as something of a surprise that Nikil Saval's Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace is the most comprehensive take on life at the desk since 1951, when C. Wright Mills wrote White Collar about the silent rise of office dwellers. Now, with Cubed, Saval chronicles the office's history from the post–Industrial Revolution's "unmanly clerking class" to the "non-territorial" and "managerless" offices of today.

Rather than coming out swinging, Saval is a connoisseur of mild horrors, withered souls, and unfulfilled needs. He carefully cultivates the "unholy postwar calm" of offices like IBM's, where workers labored in rows, wearing the mandated dark gray suits and black ties, under an image of the CEO, with the Orwellian company slogan behind him that read simply, "THINK." And though the normality of office work may seem immutable today, Saval conjures a time when office workers were eyed with suspicion as effeminate wimps: "Real men did real work," one nineteenth-century journalist proclaimed.

In Cubed, history appears to be playing on repeat. The invention of the typewriter and telecommunication foreshadow email, all three of which were initially heralded as time-saving devices but "paradoxically...resulted in more and more work." In each era, the office offers "freedom — the road to paradise," but each time, satisfaction proves elusive. Often the very mechanisms meant to free us become snares — the archetypal example being the office cubicle. Originally intended by its designer, Robert Probst, as a private enclave that the worker could arrange to his pleasing, the cubicle became a despised symbol of white-collar monotony

Cubed's most compelling moments are composed of human drama, such as Helen Gurley Brown's campaign to empower female office workers by encouraging them to use the office's sexual tension to their own advantage (according to Brown, "offices are sexier than Turkish harems") or the case where an office worker shot his fiancée when she changed her mind about the wedding after being taken out by office superiors.

But occasionally, the study of tedium makes for tedious history, especially in the chapters on the advent of the skyscraper or floor plan engineering, which are steeped in dry design theory. However, in most places, the book is enlivened by vivid, weird, and sometimes downright appalling anecdotes, such as the one about a 1950s office game known as "scuttle," in which male office workers chase an unsuspecting secretary and steal her underwear. Saval is at his best when he draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and film, from Walden and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to Working Girl and Dilbert, to create a sense of how each era defined work and the workspace.

Offices where people thrive are afforded little space in Cubed. Saval does, however, take some hopeful stabs at futurology by visiting revolutionary modern offices in Silicon Valley and Amsterdam, among others. The good news for those entering the rat race now is that employers increasingly value worker satisfaction, and some experiment boldly in its pursuit. GitHub built its employees a secret passageway to a speakeasy, and Google — whose offices offer beach volleyball courts, free food, and a resistance pool — is trying out ten different lighting systems "to see which work[s] best for the Googlers." Saval is tight-lipped on whether these changes, along with a rise in freelance work, offer a meaningful salve for the white-collar soul. Are freelancers (who by some estimates will make up half the work force by 2020) liberated from the workaday shackles of the office? Or are they trapped on a "precarious path of nearly permanent underemployment"? While it is unclear exactly what form the office will take (or if it will exist at all), rest assured that "a new sort of work" looms large on the horizon.

Reviewer: Laura E. Smith

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385536578
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/22/2014
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 107,502
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Customer Reviews

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( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2014

    A random drunk man xD

    A drunk man clomps over and throws an arm around the bartender. This is my friend. XD ((sorry just had to do that))

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2014


    Glances @ random drunk guy boredly

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2014


    I'm Leah.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2014


    Gtg bbt

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