Alain De Botton explores the world of offices and factories, convention halls, outdoor installations and transportation routes. He spends time in and around some less familiar work environments and discloses both the sheer strangeness and beauty of the places where people spend their working lives. Along the way, De Botton uncovers some of the most compelling questions that we rarely make time to consider: Why do we do it?
You are turning into a European Tom Friedman, writing book after book about topics your pampered existence hasn't really prepared you for and your sloth prevents you from doing research. A philosopher doesn't have to be right. Facts are just ephemeral and if you end up on both sides of an issue, who cares?
I care. I care about the people. The people who have given you their time to be interviewed and are being rewarded by condescending remarks about their looks and their life. You lack the love for people that shows in the works of Studs Terkel, and you lack the love of objects and process that shows in the description of a Simon Winchester. Instead of presenting the marvel of a biscuit designed in England and produced in Belgium, you are more interested in informing your reader's about your late-night channel surfing.
I also care about the people who read your book and will be misinformed. It was Adam Smith (not Vilfredo Pareto) who said that the size of a market determines the division of labor. Or discovering a Protestant work ethic in Catholic Belgium. This are just tiny mistakes which a little knowledge of economics, sociology and history might have prevented. But a philosopher doesn't care about the details. A philosopher thinks big thoughts? Unfortunately, Alain's thinking is faulty too. It is perfectly valid to hold the view that less automation and more manual labor is desired. You are following in the proud luddite footsteps. It is equally valid to say that those biscuit factory workers have dreadful jobs. Most human resources specialists would agree with you. Holding on to both your ideas at the same time, however, leads to the conclusion that you seek more horrible working conditions for your fellow humans. Besides, those workers would have to be one hell of productive bastards to match the machine's output of 35.000 biscuits per hour.
There are two factors that Alain ignores (and even deplores). Firstly, consumer rent. Productivity growth has brought former luxury products to the masses. You don't have to be a king to taste fine things. Alain's writing has a tinge of nostalgia for the time when only the privileged few had access. Secondly, the magic of prices and the invisible hand. Prices and money are wonderful devices to allocate resources to just those tasks in demand. You want ice-cream in the middle of the night? For a small consideration, the market will satisfy your needs. Can the market provide everything? No. Are there market failures? Naturally, and the remedies exist. Alain's limited understanding of economics leads to an unwarranted pessimism and a faulty view of the workings of a modern economy.
I also care about the processes and products that are given short shrift in Alain's reporting. Following products from their origin to their use is a great concept. Alain's lazy vignettes hardly reveal the challenges and elements of the individual stages, Only the stylish photographs partly compensate for this lack of attention. Overall, like his US colleague, the great "mustache of understanding", Alain de Botton remains trapped in his cozy prejudices despite traveling around the globe. Only in an unjust world become such books bestsellers.
In The pleasures and sorrows of work De Botton collects 10 essays about a very wide variety of topics: (1) Cargo Ship Spotting, (2) Logistics, (3) Biscuit Manufacture, (4) Career Counselling, (5) Rocket Science, (6) Painting, (7) Transmission Engineering, (8) Accountancy, (9) Entrepreneurship, and (10) Aviation.
One typical problem of this choice, is that few readers of essays may have rather little interest in any of these topics. Another problem is that, while reading, one gets the feeling that these are not essays per se but rather pieces of journalistic work. Then, too, as journalism, they would be a tat too literary. Each of the essays does introduce a wealth of vocabulary and particular language use. Besides, De Botton treats every topic with a broad sweep of elegance and seriousness, oddly juxtaposing literary erudition and matter-of-fact knowlegeability about such plebescite topics.
The pleasures and sorrows of work was published in 2009, and it will come as no surprise that A Week at the Airport was published in the same year. These two works are clearly related, in the choice of topic area, scope and style.
For readers who are interested in mastery of language in ususual areas, or faithful fans of Alain de Botton, The pleasures and sorrows of work may have some appeal. Incidentally, the essays are not a reflection on our own work or the psychology of a working (wo-)man's life. They are rather descriptive features of an odd-ball variety of occupations.
The author's keen observations combined with a witty sense of humor makes this book a reading you'll possibly never regret. Especially the chapter which tells about a not so famous painter working to create meaning that extends beyond the temporary physical existence of a single mind may give the opportunity to reconsider what it really means to work. As the final sentence I'd like to thank to the photographer which helped me to the see even the most ordinary scenes like I have never seen before.
I think this added, initially, to the pleasant experience gained in reading this book.
The close attention to detail in the smallest of things relating to the working world all around us, things to which we rarely spare a moments thought, felt worthwhile. To give pause to the wonders of the world, whether these things are art, nature, or the logistics of offering the sale of tuna steaks to supermarket customers in England, is important, if for nothing else to extract you from the natural engagement of your immediate world.
I enjoyed his writing style as well, which was highly descriptive.
However I will say that towards the end of the book there was a rising sense of a lack of coherency. Whilst the initial chapters held the promise that there would be some sort of link between all these parts, it somewhat failed to materialise and we were treated instead to a more inward analysis of the authors own relationship with work and it's meaning/importance, whilst we somewhat haphazardly jumped between descriptions of wholly unrelated forms of employment. Whilst he does touch on the evolution of the societal relationship with work, it feels that he could have done more analysis of this aspect.
Worth reading though :)
And now, a digression of my own.
De Botton notes that he gave a lecture at California State University, Bakersfield, and that the lecture was "notable for its near-unanimous absence of attendees." This observation neither surprises me nor strikes me as dishonest because I am, regrettably, from Bakersfield and, regrettably, well acquainted with what constitutes its milieu (if courting Sarah Palin to speak at "conferences," MONSTER TRUCK PANDEMONIUM THIS SATURDAY!SATURDAY!SATURDAY!, and a fast food chain restaurant on every corner can even be said to qualify as a milieu). What does surprise and strike me as dishonest is that De Botton then claims to get lost when he leaves Bakersfield. Seriously? There're basically two ways into this shit city. Granted, they pretty much look the same, what with their low desert scrub and billboards promising a better life in the military; however, if you've mistaken them for something else, I gotta say that you've seriously underestimated the gravity of your situation and I, therefore, question your intelligence and the veracity thereof. Now, my problem with his claim is that he ends up in nearby Mojave as a result, where he is summarily cussed by a native (THAT I buy). And, frankly, I'm cool with it because De Botton has shown himself to be a tourist that is too clever by half.
The modern quest for happiness and fulfilment in both marriage and in work.
I had forgotten, or never realised, perhaps, that several centuries ago, people didn't have such high expectations. They worked to avoid getting the whip. Marriages were for the benefit of families, not individuals.
Alain De Botton met some interesting characters on his self-propelled adventure through extremely boring places. I suspect these characters were pretty boring themselves, but his descriptions are, I suspect, spot-on. I do wonder what those people thought when reading back his acerbic descriptions of themselves. De Botton obviously had the last laugh. I wonder if he sent a proof copy of his novel to his tour guide at the biscuit company, for instance, who apparently eyed him with contempt for sharing the early male pattern balding syndrome. De Botton is good at poking fun at himself as well as others, which is what redeems him in my eyes.
I found some of the chapters far more interesting than others. My eyes glazed over with fish, perhaps because we've been hearing a lot about over-fishing lately. This is no reason to glaze over, but familiarity breeds contempt. I baked two batches of biscuits while reading about those, and ate far too many. I also enjoyed the description of the multi-storied accounting firm, and its faux-humble CEO.
As a young mother who will return to work soon, possibly next year, I'm not sure if this book did anything to allay my fears or enthuse me. I'm already one of those people for whom work is a total pain. I think I have decided not to spend my next career in an office though. Life is far, far too short.
The felicity and clarity of Botton's prose is intoxicating, even as his approach to the topic of work is somewhat scattershot, his subtle wit too often punctuated by maladroit attempts at cleverness, and his distractibility (by pretty women, father figures, etc) and perturbation at times leads him astray.
Botton's selection of details is impeccable, but the frequent photographs and illustrations are never redundant against the text.
While his portraits of various workers seem sincerely empathetic, we mostly are given the author's impressions of how they might view their jobs or lives rather than hearing from the workers directly. While this doesn't purport to be a work of journalism, sometimes de Botton substitutes direct inquiry with speculative musings purely for literary effect. Then again, his focus, while inclusive of workers, has a broader range: that of human desire and human endeavor from a historical and philosophical perspective. This encompasses everything from Aristotelian vs. Protestant conceptions of leisure and industry; pre-modern vs. modern ontologies; subjugation or sublimation of laziness, fear of death, and the libido - just for starters, and all delved in a very accessible manner free from pretension or pedantry.
His observations can be incisive, funny, or expansive, while his admiration, anxiety, or envy all seem readily provoked by the people, situations, and structures he investigates or imagines.
Though they are thematically interdependent, each chapter could function as its own essay. Seen in this manner, his overall conclusion seems less conclusive - his pessimism tempered by contemplation, reverence for skill, and awe of our individual or collective accomplishments as well as our delusions.
Very quotable, engrossing, at times funny, and provocative of thought and conversation...