A review of 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work' by Alain de Botton; ISBN 9780241143537
Ever had that sinking feeling of seeing something that you invented in your mind becoming a huge commercial success ... for someone else? As a writer, that’s the same feeling I had when I read The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. In many ways this is a book I wish I’d written.
Most of us spend a healthy slice of our lives working. We spend additional time thinking about work, but these thoughts are generally focused on the job at hand. We think through an upcoming meeting, worry about a deadline or scheme about our next job change.
Much less often do we think about the wider connection of our work to our community. Rarely, if ever, do we think about the extent to which others’ work impacts on, and is essential to, our way of life.
As is so often the case, it takes someone like modern philosopher Alain de Botton, who as far as I can tell has never had a ‘normal’ job, to expose us to the real goings on under the coat of our existence. In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he turns that coat - this time a fluorescent orange safety model - inside out and gives it a damn good shake.
de Botton’s trademark method is to immerse himself in his area of study and to entertainingly share with us his deep insights along the way. In this book we follow a tuna from its capture on a fishing vessel in the Maldives to an eight-year-old’s dinner plate in Bristol in under three days. We spend time immersed in the invention of a new biscuit. We sit in the broom-cupboard of a career counsellor and spy on a counselling session. And we tramp over field and dale following electricity pylons from go to whoa in the grey English countryside.
de Botton’s definition of work is deliberately broad. Apart from accountants and manufacturing managers he also visits an obsessive artist, a number of misguided entrepreneurs and a group of earnest, white-coated rocket scientists launching a Japanese satellite from French Guiana.
A central theme is what de Botton perceives as an increasing disconnection.
“We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.” and later “How ignorant we are ... surrounded by machines and processes of which we have only the loosest grasp.”
A similar disconnection occurs within our work, where the increasing specialisation of work leads to greater and greater separation of those doing the job from the goods they ‘produce’.
“It is surely significant that the adults who feature in children’s books are rarely, if ever, Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers. They are shopkeepers, builders, cooks or farmers - people whose labour can easily be linked to the visible betterment of human life.”
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work does have some flaws. There are times when de Botton drifts a fair way from his theme with occasionally disingenuous observations of 'ordinary' workers. And the structure is a bit ad hoc at times, with no real effort to bring it all together in the end. On the whole, though, I found the book an engrossing and thought provoking look at both work and modern life as a whole. An accompanying collection of stark black and white photos by Richard Baker beautifully reinforces de Botton’s messages. You won’t look at your work in the quite the same way again.
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