The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work Paperback – Jun 1 2010
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"Like a combination of Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace and pop philosopher Thomas Moore . . . De Botton's perspective is so vivid and self-exposing that it's hard not to crave it well after you've put down his books."
"[De Botton is] a sharp observer, a witty raconteur and insightful guide . . . hugely entertaining."
— National Post
"One of the prettiest, most richly insightful and deceptively simple books about toil."
— Vancouver Sun
"[An] insightful, elegantly written book . . . De Botton tells the story with charming wit and a masterful style."
— Winnipeg Free Press
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Alain de Botton has published six non-fiction books: The Architecture of Happiness, Essays in Love, Status Anxiety, The Art of Travel, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and The Consolations of Philosophy, three of which were made into TV documentaries. He has also published two novels: The Romantic Movement and Kiss and Tell. In 2004, Status Anxiety was awarded the prize for the Economics Book of the Year by the Financial Times, Germany. Cambridge-educated, de Botton is a frequent contributor to numerous newspapers, journals, and magazines. His work is published in twenty-five countries.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
This book is a series of ten essays on the theme of work, with each chapter focussing on a different occupation. The essays are enhanced by accompanying black and white photographs.
The journey starts at a harbour on the Thames where cargo ships arrive and then depart as they transport products to and from the UK. These ships are largely invisible (in the sense that no-one is looking) to those not directly concerned with their passage. Yet this hidden industry impacts on the lives of many. The next chapter, which looks at work in a logistics park, focuses on the distribution of goods - many of which are perishable - to their destinations on supermarket shelves. And, in a specific example, the chapter traces the journey of a tuna from its origin in the Indian Ocean to a dinner table in Bristol. The logistics of transport and distribution is both blandly anonymous, and deeply personal.
Later chapters explore biscuit manufacture in Belgium, career counselling, aviation and rocket science. De Botton also explores painting, transmission engineering, accountancy and entrepreneurship. And in each of these cases we are mindful of De Botton's question: `When does a job feel meaningful?' While many people struggle to find satisfying work, others like Stephen Taylor the landscape painter, seem to enjoy what they do. The role of the career counsellor, Robert Symons, is to help people find meaningful work - but what does this really mean if people are unsure about what they would like to do or feel locked into a choice they made as teenagers?Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This tourist's eye view is a great strength because unlike the subjects he examines under his microscope De Botton is able to look at each occupation and see it with fresh eyes as a choice made by each person who picked that career from the countless other possibilities. Most of us entered our chosen field by way of decisions made when we were unthinking undergrads or teenagers looking for something to earn us a buck without really giving it much thought. Our careers chose us by paying well or being conveniently located to our homes, we didn't choose our careers. This pathology (and it is a pathology that stems from laziness) is wonderfully illustrated in the chapter devoted to accountancy by showcasing fresh faced recruits straight from college who bury themselves in the busy work of his job rather than examine why they are doing what they do for a living. This is that rare book that forces us to think about why we are devoting so much of our waking lives to do our jobs while we never invested nearly as much time into deciding which job to choose.
The tourist perspective is also a weakness for De Botton because he never sticks around long enough to examine the motivations of his subjects. De Botton has done the impossible, he has written a book about work without discussing money. That's like writing a book about dating without ever mentioning the topic of sex. The tourist that he is visits an occupation as if it were some foreign city, he notices and appreciates the details of the landscape in a way that the locals ignore. However, his insights are superficial and shallow in the same way that a tourist's understanding of a new land is limited to what can be observed immediately. He doesn't explore the motivations for people to stay in jobs that may have been poorly chosen. He doesn't really investigate the 'why' and instead chooses to simply describe the 'what'.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable read. Especially as I found the author's description of my profession to be spot on. If your profession is the focus of one of the chapters in this book then you will enjoy this book immensely. If you don't toil in one of the occupations described in this book you may still find it enjoyable but you probably won't appreciate it as much as I did.
As opposed to his prior books, Pleasures and Sorrows tends more to the discursive--it is more of a loosely related grouping of essays than a reasoned, methodical exploration of modern labors. I'm afraid that following a brilliant introduction and statement of thesis, the work lost its way in much the same manner as did the author when he attempted to travel from Bakersfield to Los Angeles yet manages to discover something noteworthy among the detritus of modern civilization. Nevertheless, even when he loses his way, his book retains the ability to force one to think about what makes effort rewarding, what makes life worth living; De Botton invites us to challenge our own assumptions.
Too often snarky and discourteous to his subjects, the author's evident frustration with modern life and reality needn't have been focused on the human subjects making their best navigation of a flawed world. There is a nobility in simply arriving home at the end of a day having secured the resources sufficient to meet one's needs. Somebody has to make the nasty biscuits and somebody has to count the silverware--I had hoped, rather, for De Botton to find more of the magic in the mundane, to use his gift of expression to elevate rather than to deride.
But by the time I finished the work, I sensed that the author has let his own despair seep into the work. In a modern world utterly unsuited for the kind of artistic expression that he loves and has so admirably set forth in his prior books, perhaps De Botton has unintentionally opened himself to his readers and has allowed us to feel some of the sorrow in the work of the author and philosopher who sees so much beauty in the world that goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Here's hoping that for his next book we can focus more on the pleasures and less upon the sorrows.
The book consists of ten chapters, in each of which the author explores a specific job type in depth. The text is augmented throughout with photographs by Richard Baker, about 15 per chapter. These serve as an excellent complement to de Botton's remarks and reinforce one of the book's major strengths, which is Alain de Botton's skill for anchoring his exploration of profound questions pertaining to work (what to do with one's life? how to combine earning money with attaining fulfilment? how to balance career and family obligations?) in intelligently chosen, concrete examples.
A listing of the ten chapters gives an idea of the wide-ranging and eclectic nature of his investigation:
1. Cargo Ship Spotting
2. Logistics (including a photo essay which follows the path of a tuna from its capture in a Maldives fishing boat to the supermarket shelf)
3. Biscuit Manufacture
4. Career Counselling
5. Rocket Science
7. Transmission Engineering
The list fails to convey the charm and subtlety of de Botton's writing - to appreciate those, you'll have to read the book yourself. In each chapter there is something to delight - the author's curiosity will make you think about commonplace things in a new way, and his thoughtfulness and erudition make him a charming tour guide. The chapter on "rocket science", centred around a trip to French Guiana to report on the launch of a French-made communications satellite commissioned by a Japanese TV station, is a tour de force of nonfiction writing. But de Botton's particular talent shines through most obviously in those chapters which appear superficially least promising. You think to yourself - how can anyone write about biscuit manufacturing, or accountancy, and be interesting? Then you read the chapters in question, and re-read them, and think - how the hell did he do that?
I found the book riveting. It's certainly among the top five non-fiction books I've read in the past ten years.
Many of the people the author encounters are treated with a good deal of sympathy and one feels his observations to be largely accurate based on his personal impressions of them. I grew to feel admiration, respect and envy for people who are emphatically engaged in their professions and passionate about the importance of their labour. However, at some points de Botton's prose lapse almost too far into a novelistic approach so that individuals he meets are fitted into the author's schematic understanding of certain workers' reality. Thus he might make presumptions about real people by speculating about their consciousness and how they feel about their position in the world. For instance, he summarizes the end of the day for an employee from an accountancy's advisory services and concludes how this man contemplates what has been "difficult, unnecessary and regrettable" about the effort of his labour for that day. The author doesn't specify whether he gleaned this understanding of this individual's inner-existence from a revealing interview or following him home to unobtrusively observe his private life. But one can't help but feel some liberties were taken. This makes me wonder why this author who is so brilliant at investigating the liminal spaces of our existence and the most crucial issues of our lives doesn't write more novels like his first published works.
The author also touchingly interjects elements of himself in the book. This might include finding a likeness of his father in a portrait of the president of the Maldives or a melancholic mood he falls into following the launch of a satellite into space. However, though always taking himself and his enquiries seriously, one can feel a great deal of humour laden in his emphatic pondering especially when he relates this to people he encounters. At one point he desperately asks a girl working on a document about brand performance why "in our society the greatest sums of money so often tend to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things" and at another point in the Majove desert implores the groundskeeper of an airfield populated by dilapidated airplanes to grant him closer access out of his "preoccupation with the remnants of collapsing civilisations." What is so engaging about de Botton's style is how evidently immediate and crucial the concerns he writes about are to the author himself. Yet, at the same time, he understands that life shouldn't be taken too seriously. This makes the book very personal and enjoyable as well as including profound thoughts about the nature of being. Life is full of questions and, even if no satisfactory answers can be found, Alain de Botton is bravely determined to at least explore the meaning of it all with great eloquence and wit.
In each of the book's ten chapters (ranging from Cargo Shipping to Aviation), Bottton goes on site and takes us through the often hidden aspects of how an industry operates. One of the chapters, called Career Counseling, seems out of place and describes the practice of a struggling vocational counselor and motivational speaker. Part of the incoherence of the book is how this chapter just seems tossed in.
Botton is a perceptive person and a skilled writer. He often heightens the enjoyment of reading about rather dull enterprises with his philosophical observations. He did some extensive research, such as in the chapter on Logistics where he literally follows the journey of a tuna from the sea to a boy's dinner plate, describing the complex processes along the way. But for a book on the pleasures and sorrows of work, Botton seldom provides any in-depth material from those working in these industries. Instead, he gives us his observations of how these businesses operate and what he imagines people are experiencing.
I enjoyed most the chapter on Accountancy when Botton spent time at the sleek, modern London headquarters of the Ernst & Young accounting firm. Typical of Botton's wry observations is this one about one of the employees: "She had a business card which she hands over in meetings and which tells other people--and more meaningfully perhaps, reminds her--that she is a Business Unit Senior Manager, rather than a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe."
For all that you learn about obscure industries and for all of Botton's wit, this book is still a hodepodge. One wonders if Botton had written a book on the joys and sorrows of marriage, for example, if he would have hung out at a few dinner parties and then strung his observations along in book form, much as he did here.