The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

by Alan Ashton-Smith

16 August 2009

cover art

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Alain de Botton

(Knopf Doubleday)
US: Jun 2009

Having written books on Proust, travel and architecture, Alain de Botton has now turned his hand to work. That is not to say that he has given up writing light works of pop philosophy and taken a more regimented job; rather that the subject of his latest book is the way in which we pass our time and earn our money.

Even at a time of recession the range of jobs on offer is vast, so understandably, only small selections of examples are covered in any detail. They are a mixed bag: after shadowing a biscuit designer and a careers counselor for a while, de Botton heads off to French Guiana to witness the launch of a Japanese satellite, and then returns to England to meet a man who has spent two years painting pictures of the same oak tree.

Interestingly, it is the more banal occupations that make for more engaging reading. This study in work is at its best when de Botton is most meticulous, and it is whilst writing about accountancy and factory work that he provides the most insightful details – when he is discussing rocket launches and the inventor of shoes for walking on water, the subject matter in itself tends to overshadow the fact that it is the source of someone’s daily bread.

Most fascinating of all is the chapter entitled ‘Logistics’. Having spotted a stack of tuna steaks while investigating a warehouse near Birmingham, de Botton undertakes to follow the process of fish importation from start to finish. The journey begins in the Indian Ocean, where the tuna is caught and killed. It is then prepared and packed in the Maldives, and flown to England.

de Botton continues to travel with the tuna steak from airport to supermarket, and from here he follows its purchaser home in order to witness the cooking and consumption of the fish. Only 52 hours pass between sea and supermarket shelf. This section is presented as a photo essay, and the whole book is liberally interspersed with photographs, detailing the ins and outs of the working lives surveyed.

The combination of these pictures, the book’s glossy pages and de Botton’s entertaining and elegant writing style make for an enjoyable read, but none of these features can disguise the fact that there is a distinct lack of a proper argument. de Botton does make some very good points. He argues that a job seems fulfilling if it serves either to increase the pleasure or decrease the suffering of one’s fellow humans, a credible and concise insight.

His hypothesis that work is one of two great ideas that western society has faith in, the other being love, is also very interesting, particularly when it is borne in mind that his first book was the novel Essays in Love – as its title suggests, an essayistic investigation into love. But these points are made far too early on, forcing de Botton to end his book with only the weak conclusion that work at least keeps us busy and distracts us from greater anxieties.

Such a suggestion is particularly hard to take from a writer and philosopher – someone who has made his living in a far less menial manner than the workers he profiles. It is presumably the dichotomy between de Botton and his subjects that is the reason for his curious detachment from the text. Although he presents a first person account, and provides personal details about his journeys and hotel rooms, the notion that what he is doing as he researches work is in itself work is completely absent.

This problem reaches its nadir at the moments when he talks down to his subjects. While wandering through the administrative offices of the biscuit factory, he attempts to engage one of its staff in conversation about the Industrial Revolution and ‘our pyramid of needs’. Having recounted this, he informs us that she ‘had little to add to this analysis’.

Later, when he is trying to gain entry to a scrapyard for aircraft, he delivers to its proprietor a lengthy speech which namechecks Goethe and Edward Gibbon. He then writes that ‘there was a silence as my companion took in the eloquence, cultural range and sheer profundity of what I had just said’.

To conclude the chapter set at an accountancy firm, he imagines the commute home of one its employees. As the accountant contemplates his life on the train journey we learn that he is a divorcee heading home to an empty flat to eat a ready meal and watch TV, living an existence regulated by alcohol and caffeine. ‘He will perhaps only ever do one thing well in his life.’ It is a deeply melancholy passage, even depressing, and unduly so. By concentrating so rigorously on the employment of this character, de Botton ends up realising him as a tragic victim of a work-centered society.

Herein lay the great flaw of this book: in analysing labour with such intensity, the author offers us a worldview that is unfairly inflected with greater sorrow than pleasure.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work


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