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Review of de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

I found de Botton’s new book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work in the bookshop at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday, so I bought it, and have now read it.

It’s a series of essays on the theme of work, each chapter focussing on a different profession. The book is filled with black and white photos taken by a photographer who accompanied Alain on his travels around the world. I loved the photos.

The essays are largely descriptive, peppered with lots of references demonstrating the vast range of de Botton’s literary, historical and philosophical knowledge. Chapter one describes the arrival of a ship down the Thames, which then unloads at Tilbury container docks. We get details of the ship’s course, some reflections on how little most of us know about how the goods we use daily actually get to our local shop from far away lands, and impressions of the vast scale of the facilities and their grandeur. De Botton ponders on the question: why people don’t come down and look at these amazing structures? He concludes it is “an unwarranted prejudice which deems it peculiar to express overly powerful feelings of admiration towards a gas tanker or a paper mill – or indeed towards almost any aspect of the labouring world.”

After we hear about the ship spotters who record the great vessel’s comings and goings, the chapter ends. The next looks at work in a logistics park. Other chapters look at biscuit manufacture, careers counselling, accountancy, entrepreneurship, and so on.

De Botton is fully aware that his style will strike many as rather pretentious, and even has an occasional joke at his own expense – explaining how, after waxing lyrical on some work-related theme, a guard had told him to “fuck off”. It’s admirable that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Is it a good book? Actually, yes it is (see below).

But I will explain first why this sort of thing doesn’t do much for me. I guess what I find unsatisfying about this sort of writing (and I am not singling out just de Botton - I think it's a whole genre that I'm talking about) is that, while saying so much, it says so little.

Read the book, and then ask yourself: what is the central argument of this book? What are its conclusions?

Above all ask yourself: what has been clearly and unambiguously stated here with which someone might conceivably disagree?

The answers are – there isn’t really any argument, there are few conclusions, and those conclusions that are drawn, once shorn of the impressive filigree of historical references and literary flourishes, turn out to be fairly obvious and uncontroversial.

There’s a clear contrast here with a thinker like e.g. Peter Singer. While de Botton is terribly posh and TV-friendly, Singer is Australian-accented and rather unglamorous in appearance (sorry Peter).

Singer too writes beautifully, but his is the style of someone who doesn’t want his style noticed. It’s deliberately transparent: you look right through it, at first noticing just the ideas, only later registering the beautifully precise and clear way they have been articulated (Dawkins too has this gift).

Like de Botton, Singer is a deeply passionate thinker. But Singer also dares to expresses a controversial point of view. Read Singer and you have little choice but to engage your brain. He pokes you in the ribs with his arguments, challenging you to find the flaws. We know exactly what he thinks and exactly why he thinks it. He stings like a Socratic gad-fly – pricking our consciences, making us feel uncomfortable.

I have little idea, after reading this book, what de Botton actually thinks about anything, beyond mundane stuff with which we can all agree.

The book is like a very agreeable soufflé. It looks philosophically formidable and impressive, but when we put our fork into it we find it makes few if any claims with which we can critically engage. This suits the appetites of many middle class readers of course. It’s light and fluffy to read, requiring little effort on our part. We can enjoy this wonderfully crafted intellectual creation, and can then congratulate ourselves on finding it so effortless to digest.

I just prefer something a bit more substantial to get my teeth into. I'm not sure there’s a single meaty, controversial idea in the book.

Now, that’s to convey something of my irritation with the book, and with this genre generally. But let me be clear that by no means does that make it a bad book.

The thing is, I have just been judging the book by standards that are really not appropriate.

Point is, it’s just not intended as that sort of book. De Botton is no Singer, but then he doesn’t pretend to be. This text should perhaps be approached more like a book of poems. Getting us to look at the world around us in a slightly different way. Reminding us of the miraculous in the everyday, of the genuinely fascinating stuff that’s right under our noses. There can be genuine value in that. And de Botton is very good at it.

So – it is a good book! Just not the sort of book I enjoy (I don’t like poetry much either).

Of course, de Botton must have many interesting opinions with which we can disagree – opinions about religion, say, or about politics. I wonder what they are. Personally, I’d much rather hear about those opinions, and about why de Botton holds them. But (in this book at least) de Botton seems guarded about airing his views on such substantive issues. Whether this is because he wants to remain on good terms with all his readers, or because he considers such talk vulgar, or because he is just a very private person, or some other reason, I don’t know. Personally, I just wish he would.


Kosh3 said…
wtf how quickly do you read?!
Stephen Law said…
Pretty quick. Did not have much to do yesterday.

Busy today though!
Kosh3 said…
Damn, takes me forever to read anything
Interesting review, and I sympathise with your perspective, but "I don’t like poetry much either" - well that explains a lot! (grin)
Alain de Botton said…
This is a really good analysis and puts its finger on the issues absolutely. You're right, my book isn't a piece of philosophy and read as philosophy, it's indeed a souffle, or even worse than that, hot air. Go to the book looking for 'big ideas' and you'll be disappointed. The book aims to be evocative, funny, interesting and deliberately digressive and without a central spine of conclusion. My misfortune as a writer is that because I once wrote a book on philosophy, I'm assumed to aspire to be a philosopher. I'm really an essayist. My hero for this book was Norman Mailer (his book, Of a Fire on the Moon) and Virginia Woolf (her essay, the Docks of London).
I adore Singer's work - and I also love poetry (at least some of it, Auden and Larkin and Baudelaire mostly). This is for the poetry lovers. Also, anyone who enjoys Sebald.
Anyway, congratulations on reading very fast and analysing the issues brilliantly.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks Alain. I do actually understand where you are coming from, and why this is, actually, rather good. If not to my taste!

Of course, your philosophy book did say (or at least imply - it was that quote on the back cover of the first hardcover) stuff with which I could and did take issue - but not this one. I acknowledge you've left the philosophy behind.

Apologies again for the earlier shooting from the hip. And have a good festival...
Stephen Law said…
sorry for gibberish: "it was that quote on the back cover of the first hardcover..." - I deleted "...that particularly wound me up"
Gail Renard said…
I'm glad that you and Alain are making nice with each other again but:

"This suits the appetites of many middle class readers of course."

Hasty generalisation or wot... even as a joke!
Stephen Law said…
Sam - what does it explain?!
Sally said…
Alain's books are lovely and no toilet bookshelf is complete without one. You must admit takes a certain skill to present Nietzsche's philosophy as "consoling".
Mind you, I am a bit middle class...
Jean K. said…
I agree with you about Peter Singer's excellent abilities as a writer...and a thinker.

As to this book--well, I'll have to have a look. A book doesn't really have to have "an argument." I would love to read a book about what it's like to have various jobs. Maybe ADB has written it.

I want to know what it's like being a mammogram technician, or doing colonoscopies all day, or even just being in the business of manufacturing flower pots or devoting yourself to the manufacture of marmalade. But to find out, it might mean an author has to get into other people's shoes,like Barbara Ehrenreich does in Nickel and Dimed.

In any event, the subject of work is a good one. And I am wildly jealous of ADB for having such an amazing picture editor.

p.s. It is my humble opinion that Peter Singer is a nice lookin' guy with a cool accent.
Unknown said…
I sort of think this is the case with all of De Botton's books..They are quite entertaining and good reads, and perhaps that is that..which is not so bad after all..If you can be inspired from reading his work that's a bonus!
A-Z said…
"a very agreeable soufflé."?
more like a non-ripe apple.
leaves a funny itch on your teeth every time you try to bite it..

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