Lynn Peril is an administrative assistant who sees secretarial work from the inside. She is also a breezy, lighthearted writer with an easy way of presenting her material. Swimming in the Steno Pool travels to the nineteenth century, when modern secretarial work began. Richly documented with quotes from over a hundred years of career advice guides, magazine articles, secretarial school brochures, and “naughty secretary” novels, the book is a journey through the history of secretaries. There are also plenty of period illustrations.
Opening it, I feared the cover. Was this book one of those “fun romps” through an earlier era that would enjoy and approve of sexism and harassment? I need not have worried. The author has a fine way of shifting between the light and the serious; the degradations of secretarial life are treated alongside its dignities, with bemusement, seriousness, and a sigh. Lynn enjoys her line of work, and, as someone who worked as a secretary/AA for years, I appreciate that.
It is, perhaps, over-documented, there were so many quotes and passages that there were times I felt like, “I got it already. Move on!” But a lot of them are great to read. They are generally unintentionally funny, advising secretaries to be subservient, supportive, and indispensable. The career guides pointedly overlook the realities of the working world and persist in giving outrageously bad advice: Unwanted sexual advances are easily put off by the right attitude, advancement is just around the corner, don’t blow your own horn because good work is always recognized. The author points out how much the advice given to secretaries of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s parallels the advice given to wives of the era: Be a passive helpmeet and if something goes wrong it’s your own fault, because boss/hubby is perfect.
The book is weak in addressing issues of race. When reading about “women” this and “sexism” that, I feel like it’s important for the author to point out she’s talking about white women. About halfway through, race is addressed quite briefly, but I feel the book would have benefited from a few more pages on the subject.
Lynn Peril mostly succeeds in a tricky job; maintaining a light tone while presenting a wealth of historic and factual information. I came away from the book informed as well as entertained.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.