The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: Reviews

William Leith in The Spectator, 22 April 2009

Read at The Spectator website

Alain de Botton recently said that he’d been congratulated on his prescience for writing a book about the nature of work in these times of economic woe. But he wasn’t prescient, he said — just interested in the subject. He has been pondering it for several years now, in his specific, de Botton-esque style, which is calm and leisurely, and sometimes faux-naif; a killer combination when it works. Here it works; he has pretty much got to the bottom of the subject.

In his time, Alain has got to the bottom — or close to the bottom — of several subjects. Love, travel, Marcel Proust, and happiness, to name a few. As a writer, he can be attracted to the paradoxical and the counter-intuitive. His work has a mildly French feel; in his novel Essays in Love he wrote, ‘One of love’s greatest drawbacks is that, for a while at least, it is in danger of making us happy.’ Approaching his subjects by stealth, he stands above them, and a little to the side. His aim is to lead you gently, to a point where you will say to yourself: ‘I see! So that’s how the world works!’

In Aristotle’s time, de Botton tells us, people thought that one could only be happy if one did not work. ‘For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals.’ But then things changed — as we became progressively industrialised, so work became more exalted. Catholics had thought holiness could only come from prayer and contemplation; Protestants, with their work ethic, thought that work itself had intrinsic value. These days, our economy depends on a high level of specialisation. People spend their lives doing weird things. How, de Botton wonders, do they cope?

Early in the book, he shows us where our tuna comes from. He goes on a fishing boat in the Maldives. The boat chases a shoal of yellowfin tuna on its way to Africa. A fish is hooked on a handline and hauled aboard. It is the size of a child. The fisherman beats it to death with a customised bat, while yelling ‘Bitch, bitch, you’ve had it now.’ The fish’s eyes pop out of its head. Later, it is filleted and packed into a box bearing a familiar supermarket logo.

Next, we are taken to a biscuit factory; a place of unspeakable, almost frightening banality. De Botton meets the ‘author’ of a type of biscuit called ‘McVitie’s Moments’. The biscuit has taken two years and three million pounds to develop; the biscuit man believes, as de Botton puts it, that ‘biscuits are nowadays a branch of psychology, not cooking’. Focus groups had been consulted in the course of designing this biscuit; enormous care had been taken in choosing a name. In a biscuit company, de Botton notices, people are reverential about the biscuits; nobody makes biscuit jokes.

All this is wonderfully readable stuff, and there are also lots of rather bleak pictures. De Botton takes us through the entire process of the building and launching of a TV satellite, an endeavour which is, quite literally, rocket science. Underlying this launch is the fact that the point of this satellite is to broadcast downmarket Japanese television shows. De Botton watches the rocket being shot into the sky, and is not overwhelmed, but rather gently nudged, by a sense of existential angst. He feels ‘unexpectedly melancholic’.

Well, so did I. What de Botton is showing us, in his de Botton-esque way, is that, in our world of niched desire and economic efficiency, our working practices might be driving us nuts. He cites the economist Vilfredo Pareto, who believed that a society’s wealth is a function of the ability of its workers to specialise. In a wealthy society, some people will be ‘packaging technologists’ and ‘branding executives’, just as others will beat tuna to death or believe that making biscuits is a branch of psychology. But does this make us spiritually richer? De Botton tries to discuss this very question with a biscuit executive. ‘A terrified expression spread across her features and she asked if I might excuse her,’ he writes. A telling moment; a timely book.

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