Book in the news: a compelling history of the factory

Cover of BehemothBehemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
by Joshua B Freeman
Published by Norton, £22
(Buy at Amazon)

The number of people employed in American and British factories may have declined precipitously, but the image of the heroic worker manning the production line still remains politically potent, as shown by Donald Trump’s wooing of coal workers in his election campaign, for example. Joshua Freeman’s book looks at the rise, decline and possible fall of this great institution. It “traces the rise of the factory and how it became entwined with Enlightenment ideas of progress” and why it “still looms large in the national imagination”, as Jennifer Szalai puts it in The New York Times.

“The author’s sympathy, insight and exemplary anecdotes make this a marvellous book,” says Ian Jack in The Guardian. “Almost every page contains a memorable fact or an intriguing thought, and by treating factories as a global phenomenon, Freeman has freed them from the cliches of the purely national narrative” that is taught to “generations of British schoolchildren”. Indeed, Freeman points out that after its birth in 18th-century Britain, “the main thrust of factory history moved elsewhere – beyond Europe, to the US and the Soviet Union”. China may, he says, be the last society shaped by the factory as a mass employer. If so, this book, says The Economist, stands as “an outstanding obituary” of the institution.