The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: Reviews
Jay Parini in the Guardian, 4 April 2009
From How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) to The Architecture of Happiness (2006), Alain de Botton has informed, upset, annoyed, surprised and generally entertained readers. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a different sort of project, consisting of more reportage than usual, and less arch philosophical musing. Yet the author’s trademark style, with its clarity and wan detachment, is present throughout.
De Botton usually mixes idiosyncratic illustrations or photographs with an array of memorable quotations. He quotes rarely in the new book, but photographs abound – more like documentary evidence than images designed to prick the imagination. This seems in keeping with a book composed of reports from the field. In looking closely at specific arenas of labour, he hopes this book will serve as “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.”
De Botton finds more sorrows than pleasures as he takes us through a series of 10 self-contained studies, isolating strands in the complex weave that constitutes “the workplace”. We visit a bleak harbour on the Thames, where ungainly cargo ships arrive and depart with remorseless consistency, largely unnoticed by anyone not directly involved with the products they transport. We tour a set of grim warehouses, “one of the largest and most technologically advanced logistics parks in Europe”, in a lively chapter focused on the practicalities of shunting goods (mostly foodstuffs, many of them perishable) to their destination on supermarket shelves – an astonishing feat that consumers generally ignore. In this same chapter, the author tracks a tuna from its origins in the depths of the Indian ocean to an eight-year-old boy’s dinner table in Bristol. This reportage was not easy, as De Botton notes: “Attempts to trace – let alone to witness or photograph – how warm-water fish reach our tables are liable to provoke within the industry some of the same suspicion which must have greeted enquiries into the slave trade in the 1780s.”
De Botton radiates energy, taking us inside various industries, including an industrial biscuit bakery in Belgium and the soulless London headquarters of one of the world’s largest accountancy firms. In another chapter, we follow the route (and engineering wizardry) of electrical transmission lines as they snake from pylon to pylon through the English countryside into London. Elsewhere, we consider rocket science and the aviation industry, always with an eye to the question that obsesses the author: “When does a job feel meaningful?”
He gives us an answer: “Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.” This is easier said than done, of course. Certainly Stephen Taylor, a landscape painter profiled in “Painting”, seems to enjoy lying in a field painting versions of “the same oak tree under a range of different lights and weathers”, even though few will buy his pictures. Most people seem to struggle with finding satisfying work, which is perhaps why a chapter on career counselling lies at the intellectual centre of this book.
In this chapter De Botton seeks out Robert Symons, a psychologist who advises others on their choice of a career from his “unassuming and cramped Victorian home in a run-down residential street in South London”. It must be said that De Botton turns his nose up rather unpleasantly at Symons, who has written an unpublished book called The Real Me: Career as an Act of Selfhood. The man’s job is to help people find meaningful work, although they will rarely find such a thing. De Botton reflects: “In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”
A similar insight occurs in his penultimate chapter on “Entrepreneurship”. “Our era is perverse in passing off an exception as the rule,” he writes. So thousands of inventors and would-be titans of business attend a fair in northwest London, where they put their ingenious ideas or products on display, hoping to attract investors. The truth about their prospects is harsh, however. De Botton interviews one venture capitalist who explains that of 2,000 business plans he receives in any given year, he tosses out 1,950. He looks more closely at the final 50, investing in perhaps 10 of them. Of these, five years on, only two will succeed in generating profits. The rest is wasted motion.
De Botton writes of these entrepreneurs with some derision: “These individuals were writing their stories in a subgenre of contemporary fiction, the business plan, and populating them with characters endowed with deeply implausible personalities, an oversight which would eventually be punished not by a scathing review by some bright young person from the London Review of Books but by a lack of custom and a prompt foreclosure.”
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work teems with sharp portraits, interesting details and shrewd commentary, but readers may puzzle over its lack of organisation. There is no linear argument. Instead, the book adds rings, like a tree, growing by accretion. Exactly why there are 10 chapters and not, say, eight or 15, seems difficult to know. The rueful (if mean-spirited) chapter on career counselling might have gone last, to suggest that work is rarely satisfying enough to meet our psychological expectations.
That said, Alain de Botton is always fun to watch, and he has compiled a book of vivid portraits that will generate a good deal of useful discussion about what work is, what it should be and what it can’t be.