A friend advises me that Faber Finds, the semi-automated paperback reprint series launched recently by the British publisher Faber & Faber, has just made available most of Mass-Observation's early works. (Mass-Observation was a British movement devoted to the study of everday life; I wrote about its history in "Surveillance Society," an article published in the 11 September 2006 issue of The New Yorker, and at the time posted an online supplement on this blog.) Some of M-O's books have been reprinted over the years, but Faber Finds is restoring more of them to circulation than ever, and some of the books are worth reading as literature. The most artful is May the Twelfth, a sort of distributed prose documentary of the coronation of George VI (skip the theoretical passages, which look a little algebraic and don't make much sense), and perhaps the easiest to enjoy is The Pub and the People, a study of drinking and other behaviors in Britain's public houses which makes its sympathies clear ("Hitler, Mussolini, and the Mikado are teetotalers. Baldwin, Marx, Engels, and the Duke of Windsor are not"). I was able to mention these and a few other M-O books in my article, however, so what most pleases me now is Faber's restoration of another title, War Factory, which I didn't then have room to discuss.
In 1943, a Mass-Observer named Celia Fremlin, a psychologist who was later the author of crime thrillers, wrote War Factory, a brief, gem-like account of petulance and vacant-mindedness on an assembly line, where Fremlin worked incognito. The first hours of the repetitive work, she observes, are "definitely pleasant, rather like knitting in a fairly plain pattern," and she is at pains to be just to this pleasure: "It is hard for anyone who has not tried it to realise the curious, almost exhilarating sense of the slipping away of all responsibilities that comes over people after a few days in this sort of work." In the end, though, she finds such mindless labor "quite unsuited to adult human beings," and she describes with novelistic flair the pettiness, grumbling, overeating, "lavatory-mongering," resentment, and general air of passivity it induces. Hilda, a heavyset woman, eats sandwiches made by her mother, stolidly, without knowing what's in them. Molly gloats over how much she's making. Sadie dawdles but shares her candy and cigarettes. There's an element of Pale Fire pastiche in the footnotes, which were written in rebuttal by the manager of the factory—a rebuttal for the most part obtuse. The book is full of insights as subtle as its jokes; the management scientists of the world neglect it at their peril.