IN THIS DISTURBING and important book, men and women of different ages, races and degrees of desperation talk about the effect of unemployment on the flesh and spirit of their lives. The great gray flotillas of statistics in newspapers, accompanied by statements from government officials patting themselves on the back (or apologizing) because unemployment has dropped (or risen) by one-tenth of a percentage point, do not begin to illuminate the daily reality of being out of work in America. But listen to the words of a Birmingham, Alabama, auto worker as he talks about his wife's abortion when he was out of a job:

"I figured, 'ain't no use to let the baby come and have to starve.' She really felt upset about it, you know. She cried. My wife would call me up on the phone and cry. But I didn't see no other way around. It's a hurting feeling. It gets you down when you start thinking about it. You think of what the baby could have been."

The speaker, a 24-year old black man, supports author Harry Maurer's observation that "unemployed people have been robbed of something, and they know it. The bewilderment they often express is like that of the homeowner who returns to find rooms ransacked, valuable and loved objects missing . . . It provides not simply a livlihood, but an essential passage into the human community, It makes us less alone."

Many of the young blacks Maurer interviewed, and nearly all of the middle-aged men and women of every race and economic background, shared the traditional view of work: Adults ought to earn their own living; the inability to support oneself introduces an element of humilitating, child-like dependency into adult like; quite apart from money, work is an important measure of personal worth. There is a former executive who wants work so badly that he tries to get a $3-an-hour job pumping gas and is devastated when he is turned down; a Chicano farm worker who tries to sleep late in the morning so he can get through the day on one meal and save more food for his children; a policeman, injured in the line of duty, who does housework to keep busy.

Reading these interviews, one feels intense anger at an economic and political system that has denied work to people who want jobs so badly and have tried so hard to find them. These people played by the rules and lost. The realization that it could happen to any of us is one of the phychologically unsettling aspects of the book.

Still more disturbing, though, is an other group of interviews with middle-class whites under the age of 30 -- interviews that do not support Maurer's traditional view of work. Although some of these young people were fired from their jobs, they, are, in the truest sense, voluntarily unemployed. Some deliberately did poor work so they would precipitate a dismissal and be able to collect unemployment. Most have no intention of seriously looking for work until the unemployment runs out. Asked how she feels about taking unemployment money, 24-year-old Robin Landau replies, "Great . . . It was like a free $85 a week, for doing nothing . . . The fact is that I hate working. See, I would be good at volunteer work with children or something. But the thing I really hate about work is getting up so early . . . Weekends are such a drag because they're just so crowded with all those crazy people who do the working and go out to unwind."

My reaction on reading this interview was old-fashioned, middle-class, puritanical anger: Why should my tax money be spent to support this woman? Of course, someone else must be paying too. Landau, we are told, lives on Manhattan's expensive Upper East Side on $85 a week. There must be a sugar daddy or a real mommy and daddy supplementing the income from Uncle Sam.

Then, there is 26-year-old Laura Gordon, a former teacher whose words are less parastical but just as unsettling as Laudau's recital. "I've come to realize that anything I really love, I can make my work. I can do it myself if I want; I can do it with other people if I want; I can do it through a system or on my own."

Compiling an oral history requires an interviewer to shut up and let people talk; Harry Maurer seems to have been very good at this technique. I fear I would have quarreled with people like Laura Gordon. Because, of course, the idea of doing any work one loves entirely on one's own terms is a fantasy. A teacher needs students. Even that most private and creative activities, writing, eventaully requires business dealings with editors and agents and publishers if the writer wants his work to be read by anyone outside of the immediate family.

There seems to be some defect of ambition, of will, of concern about the value of their own lives in these young people. Says and unemployed 'writer': v"Whether the novel is good, bad, or indifferent, or whether I'm good or bad, doesn't even matter too much to me."

Like Studs Terkel in Working , Maurer does not make any judgements about the people he interviews. We listen to them talk and are left in the end with what is wrong in a society that fails to provide jobs for men and women who desperately want work and also fails to provide motivation for people who are proud of not working.