Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, by David Zweig


Four stars, read in August 2017.

Really enjoyed this exploration of the people who work in jobs we never know about until something goes wrong, like data analysts for intelligence agencies (9/11), the people who design election ballots (the 2000 election in Florida), or fact-checkers (weapons of mass destruction in Iraq).

I learned about several professions I’d never heard of, or thought about as professions. Wayfinding, for example, is the profession that designs public spaces like airports in a way that (hopefully) enables people to navigate them—and you specifically never think about the design unless it’s bad. Zweig interviews someone who develop scents for celebrity perfumes, Radiohead’s guitar technician, a piano tuner for the elite Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, a UN interpreter, a cinematographer, the engineer of a “supertall” building in China, among others, and seeing what these people actually do is surprisingly fascinating.

This was an impulse-grab off a display at my local library; I was attracted to the premise of the book because this is exactly the kind of thing I find really interesting. My own job is an invisible one—people generally don’t go to the library and think about the person who got that information into the online catalog or applied all those stickers and labels—and I quite like that. I don’t like being the center of attention, but I do like knowing I’m part of something important. That’s what Invisibles do. In many cases they do get recognition, especially within their own profession, but that’s never the reason they do what they do; they’re motivated by curiosity, or passion, or something else that’s internal. And if their jobs didn’t get done, most of our society would cease to function.

One particularly surprising moment was toward the beginning, when Zweig mentions Bill Rodgers, a long-distance runner who set many records in the 1970s and 80s, when running was still “a fringe activity”—and apparently this meant he would be heckled and harassed as he ran, some people even throwing beer cans at him. This is the note I wrote to myself while reading: “Who the fuck knew that running was considered “for freaks and fairies” in the 70s, before it became popular? Jesus Christ, toxic masculinity poisons everything.” (Not that that was Zweig’s reason for bringing it up; his point was that Rodgers confused everyone by doing something that wasn’t lucrative, just because he enjoyed it.)

The book itself is put together pretty well, although I was surprised by small mistakes and design inconsistencies that seemed to increase in the second half. You can tell Zweig is just personally fascinated by this stuff, which in my case made it easier to ignore any stylistic problems, because I am too. Definitely would recommend.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Weezelle says:

    What a fascinating book. It reminds me of a essay I read ages ago about the invisible people who make London tick over at night- cleaners etc on minimum wage- who no one (not on minimum wage) ever thinks about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gwen says:

      That sounds fascinating as well, and makes me realize that this book focused a lot on very prestigious jobs, mostly high-paying. He does mention that a little in the book, but now that I’ve actually noticed it, I find it disappointing. I think it’s because the book has a goal, rather than just providing commentary; he wants to make the Invisibles’ traits sound desirable, pointing out that a society in which everyone wants to be The Star is going to become unbalanced. Which is true, but I do wish he’d included some in less prestigious (but equally, or even more, essential) professions.


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