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‘Cubed’ by Nikil Saval

Nikil Saval’s first book focuses on the evolution of workers and the workplace.

Katrina Ohstrom

Nikil Saval’s first book focuses on the evolution of workers and the workplace.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” contains one of the more indelible party scenes in recent cinema.

Few could forget the wild celebration of brokers frolicking with half-naked prostitutes and facing off over matches of dwarf tossing. The scene’s utter lunacy is made all the more outlandish by its setting: an utterly anonymous office with neutral-toned carpet, a tableau at once recognizable to everyone from crazed inside traders to the meekest of wage slaves.

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As Nikil Saval might tell you, the penny stockbrokers of Martin Scorsese’s film have precedent in the office culture of the early-to-mid 19th century, when the first class of workers to forego manual labor struggled furiously to reverse the image of their “aggressive unmanliness” by indulging in “sprees” in antebellum porterhouses with women of ill repute.

Who could fault them for cutting loose? In a contemporary account of office life — one of a healthy number of unexpected primary sources Saval dug up to help make “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” a small miracle of research — a 19th-century clerk describes his job in “a small and dusty room, ill-lighted by an abortive skylight . . . ventilated by one door opening into an equally dismal office.”

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.

This finesse is displayed amply in his chapter on the foundations and impact of the Taylor system. Taylorism, you might recall, is the school of management that changed the face of the factory floor by dividing the tasks of manual labor into individual movements, rewarding laborers for alacrity, and inspiring great swathes of the management class to stand over their underlings with a stopwatch.

Saval locates Taylorism’s roots in Gilded Age capitalist expansion with its preoccupation with efficiency. He livens it up with characters like Louis Brandeis, the “middle-aged lawyer from Boston” and early Taylor supporter who fought the railroads when they decided to raise their rates, lays out the arrangement of the newly systematized office, and wraps it up with a bow on top.

The “ideology of Taylorism all but ensured a workplace divided against itself, both in space and in practice, with a group of managers controlling how work was done and their workers merely performing that work,” he writes. “It became increasingly clear . . . from the distance between the top and the bottom rungs of the ‘ladder,’ that some workers were never going to join the upper layers of management. For some, work was always, frankly, going to suck.”

The selection of cultural artifacts Saval critiques is equally inspired; it’s doubtful that another work has considered the larger importance of Horatio Alger novels, Barbara Stanwyck films, and Mies van der Rohe’s choice of building materials together, let alone with equal reverence and this much verve.

The book begins and ends with reflections on “Office Space,” a film that exemplifies the current perception of offices as “icons of tedium.”

But, like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Cubed” comes at a time when millions of laid-off and unemployed Americans long to be enveloped in that predictable, long-term tedium. “[The] career path that defined the white-collar worker for generations . . . is coming to a close,” Saval writes. If that bears out, he has given it the elegy it deserves.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia .williamson@gmail.com.
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