The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: Reviews
The Economist, 26 March 2009
ALAIN DE BOTTON is a British essayist, novelist and, if one uses the term somewhat expansively, philosopher. Over the past decade or so he has cast a world-weary eye over travel, status and architecture, as well as writing a fine book about philosophers and an excellent meditation on Proust. His new book, “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, takes on that odd thing that most of us do for so many of our waking hours on Earth.
It would be easy to accuse Mr de Botton, who describes his new volume as “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace”, of firing cheap shots. It is, after all, a simple matter to find any number of ridiculous employments if one wishes to skew one’s analysis of work in that direction. His choice, for instance, of the design, marketing and manufacture of Moments, a British biscuit composed of chocolate and shortcake, is an easy target. So too is the man whose main enthusiasm is cataloguing the structural characteristics of electricity pylons.
Even the most cerebral of endeavours, the work of physicists who build mighty rockets and breathtakingly ingenious satellites, can be ridiculed. For is it not grating that the intellectual attainments necessary to design and hurl a satellite into geosynchronous orbit should in the end turn out to have been deployed to no greater humanitarian or cultural end than the broadcasting of a channel called WOWOW TV at a target audience of Japanese schoolchildren? And why stop there? Why not a chapter about the absurdity of a life spent compiling books of popular philosophy and psychology. Or, for that matter, about the tragic waste in sitting up late at night at a solitary computer reviewing such books? It is all, you might be tempted to conclude, pretty pointless.
Except that we know that it isn’t. Many people’s work is creative, fascinating or valuable and rewarding. And for many others it is, and always has been, a worthwhile means to the end of feeding the children and paying the bills.
Such criticisms, though, would wholly miss the point of this pleasurably intelligent book, in which the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker of nursery rhyme give way to the chocolate-coated snack brand manager, the career counsellor, the rocket scientist, painter, accountant and vendor of warplanes.
First of all, Mr de Botton is rather witty. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about the swimming pool at his Mojave desert hotel (where he has repaired in the course of a visit to a scrapyard for aeroplanes): “Unfortunately, most of the budget for the pool had apparently been squandered on proclaiming, in an enormous illuminated display by the roadside, that it existed, leaving few resources for it actually to do so.”
Secondly, Mr de Botton is surely right when he reminds us that we rarely if ever think about where our Moments and our fluffy slippers, our 16-gigabyte iPhones and our Thai red chicken curry ready-meals come from, or what an immense concatenation of individual efforts is required to ensure that a fish swimming in the Indian Ocean off the Maldives can be converted, in a couple of days, into individually packaged tuna steaks in the refrigerated-foods aisle of a supermarket in the Bristol suburbs. It is, of course, a marvel, and Mr de Botton rightly marvels at it.
And finally, the author has plenty of thought-provoking things to say about work itself, the most absurd examples of what he scathingly calls “the culmination of a long history of the division of labour, which began in Ancient Egypt three millennia ago”. Unlike other animals, we need not struggle to find our next meal. But instead of using the time to master Swedish or calculus, we often choose to devote it to the utterly banal.
Yet even the most soulless of offices has its vital part to play. The “start of work means an end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires… How satisfying it is to be held in check by the assumptions of colleagues, instead of being forced to contemplate, in the loneliness of the early hours, all that one might have been, and now never will be.” This last observation seems so heartfelt, so poignantly rendered, that one can only advise Mr de Botton himself to cease his solitary endeavours and take the plunge into the pleasures of office life.