The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

by Alain De Botton

Hardcover, 2009

Status

Available

Publication

London : Hamish Hamilton, 2009.

Description

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?

Media reviews

User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Oh Alain, I should probably not have spent my remaining pounds on your new book luring me with its discount in the dreadful waste of the airport bookstore. I could have brought along an enlightened book about early Renaissance female portraits written by an aspiring art historian. Instead, in the dreary airport world, with its noise and alienated fellow passengers I ended up with your latest work, which might be properly labeled the sorrows of Alain.

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.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
In Fates worse than death. An autobiographical collage Kurt Vonnegut wrote that a beginning writer should be on the look out for unusual fields, technology, occupations or cultural niches, which may harbour a treasure trove of unusual vocabulary and usage of language. Alain de Botton is hardly a new writer, but The pleasures and sorrows of work seems to be a typical illustration of Vonnegut's tip.

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.
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LibraryThing member rightantler
This book was a surprise. I have long been a fan of de Botton and his work. I really enjoyed the lyrical style of the various occupations he looked at as he wrote this book. Even the sections which he then took and extended his own thoughts on were for the most part, very readable. Philosophy as presented by contemporaries such as de Botton is a field which always draws me in and leaves me wanting more. This book was an excellent example.… (more)
LibraryThing member librarythingaliba
I put this one down and sent it back to the library after 2 chapters. While an interesting and insightful read, I was not immediately taken in and have too much on my plate. I kept one of his books (Status Anxiety) so hopefully I will have a chance to complete one of his works.
LibraryThing member EmreSevinc
This is the first book I've ever read from de Boton and it had a serene and Zen-like effect on me for a while. It was not very coherent, it did not contain very detailed analyses on the sociology of work and it jumped among diverse sectors such as from a biscuit factory in Belgium to a Japanese satellite launch in French Guiana but whatever de Boton described, he described in a subtle and sophisticated way which made me really smile without much change in my facial muscles. Alain de Boton is sometimes an armchair anthropologist wandering around the fishermen of exotic seas, a psychologist observing the dynamics of an international corporation, a postmodern philosopher gazing at the deep meanings reverberating from an aviation cemetery in the middle of an American desert.

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.
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LibraryThing member alexleonard
Having received this as a present for Christmas, and never having heard of either the author or the title, I had no idea what to expect.

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 :)
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LibraryThing member DSeanW
Despite Alain de Botton occasionally coming off as contemptuous of his subject to the point of being mean spirited the book contains many keen observations which resonated with my own pleasures and sorrows of work.
LibraryThing member Lady_Lazarus
The naive manner in which Alain de Botton approaches his subjects (cookie industry, logistics, career councelling...) was fascinating only for the first couple of chapters. After a while I fell bored of childish questions of "where the tuna fish comes from and goes to" and craved for more than self-evident facts about life in the capitalistic society. The main message of this book is how difficult it is to find true happiness, when you are supposed to buy it in the form of cookies and when you are not allowed to ask yourself what it is that really matters in your life. However, Alain de Botton is good with words and language (except the stupid title), I just hope he would go more deep with his subjects.… (more)
LibraryThing member subbobmail
Alain de Botton continues to put out accessible, enjoyable works of inqiury and practical philosophy. This work-centered volume is divided up into several sections, each exploring what it's like to labor in a different field: satellite launching, cookies, electrical towers, accounting, et cetera. Work defines our lives in so many ways; it's pleasurable and illuminating to view the world through the lenses of other metiers. (What's it like to spend one's life trying to engineer a new cookie? How did rocket launches, once considered spectacles of global wonder, become routine, a mere chore for Japanese TV executives?) Botton's light and elegant prose is a delight, much like his ability to be amusing while never mocking his subjects. Like most of his work, this book is a fine tool for gaining some perspective on the life one leads.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
The title of this book seems a bit misleading but the contents are often interesting. I expected more of a philosophical meditation on the meaning of work in people's lives. There is some of that, but de Botton's observations and reflections are wide-ranging. He examines things that most people ignore and reflects on them in erudite, elegant prose.… (more)
LibraryThing member KidSisyphus
A desultory meditation, by turns erudite and sardonic. De Botton uses the examples of ten occupations as entry points into associative digressions, but he never gives the workers themselves any voice. While this oversight limits the scope of what he can accomplish in a work that he himself commends to his readers as "reportage," the altar of self-conscious melancholy whereupon the Other is sacrificed proves worthy of contemplation.

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.
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LibraryThing member LynleyS
As ever, De Botton asks the reader to think of work in a new way by connecting two different trains of thought. I'd never connected these two things before:

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.
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LibraryThing member brakketh
It was interesting to have explained some of the differences between current workplaces and previous work places. I struggled a little with de Botton's writing as it felt quite condescending to those who work in non-creative industries.
LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
In this delightful treatise, de Botton invites us to rethink work, to look at all that surrounds us and how much of it is the product of human thought and build, from the rotors that lie in the furnace to the tuna that travelled around the world to end up as a sandwich in a lunchbox. With humour and insightful observations, de Botton casts a philosopher's eye to all that we don't notice so that we look at the world with fresh, new eyes and a renewed sense of wonder. A wonderful read made easy by the numerous photos that illustrate the words.… (more)
LibraryThing member BenKline
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton, is a quirky, interesting perspective on work. Written by the man who is head of the Youtube channel 'The School of Life' who has a very interesting philosophy on life, death, love, family, relationships, work, entertainment, taboo, etc - this book does an interesting job of showcasing a few select employments. Filled throughout with numerous pictures, the book details cargo boats, biscuit factories, tuna fishers, electric and conduit workers, accountants, entrepreneurs, a man who specializes in work therapy/work reassignment, a satellite launch, and aviation. Through the lens of these various fields de Botton describes and details his philosophy on work, on humans, and the way we live, and our infinite struggle with work and death.… (more)
LibraryThing member augustgarage
Some initial thoughts:

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...
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LibraryThing member sg911911
I love the author's style.

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