June 4th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work* by Alain de Botton

In addition attempting to give advice on how to go about to writing a book and having a job, it’s not much of a secret that I also am attempting to write a book about having a job. Or having jobs, I guess, since it is a collection of short stories and each character has a different job (but the all work for the same company–you see?)

Anyway! When I heard about the book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I had thought that would be helpful reading for me. Also interesting–I am fascinated by work most of the time.

The first 50 or so pages, I was pretty crestfallen, but tried to fight against it. I had the completely unreasonable expectation that this book would be a similar to Barbara Ehrenreich’s brilliant Nickel and Dimed, one of my favourite works of nonfiction ever (a slightly less stratospheric compliment when you realize how little nonfic I actually read, but I still think it counts!)

FYI: those two books are nothing alike. Ehrenreich’s is about how the author researched the experience of having minimum wage jobs by taking them, and then talking to the people she met at work. I don’t know for sure, but I believe this is exactly the sort of thing that anthropologists are forbidden to do, but she blended empathy and analysis insightfully enough that I thought the project a success (anyway, she’s not an anthropologist or a sociologist; she has a PhD in cellular biology but she likes this stuff better).

de Botton’s project is the opposite–not only does he not attempt to go incognito, he asserts his writerly status at every turn. As well, despite the title, he is not investigating specific jobs; he is curious about how industries, or parts of industries, function. Each chapter is named for one such industry (Logistics, Biscuit Manufacture, Career Counselling…) and contains an outsider-looking-in view of that world. For example, in the first two of those, he wanders around a logistic park (warehouses where items are held between legs of their shipping adventures) and a company that makes biscuits, talking to folks here or there but examining no job in depth. He follows items instead. He goes to the Maldives to see some fish being caught, then follows its logistical journey to Britain, to the warehouse, the supermarket, and finally (after hiding in the store until someone picks up a package of fish) home to see it being eaten. How cool is that?

Well, very, I guess, and in a way it does prove to us how very little we know about the history of the products we eat and use, how many people’s hard work we take for granted in our consumeristic society. His point is that we feel entitled to things without having even a basic understanding of how they come to be, and he makes a thorough analysis of that fish. Other chapters are more esoteric, however. “Aviation” focuses first on a trade show for products that could be installed in airplanes, and then on a derelict plane yard. We meet no one who actually works on a plane or flies one, just sales and marketing people, and relatively few of those. There are very few quotations from working people in a book I’d thought was about them; by and large, the text is de Botton’s musings *on* the work that people do. And that is work in general, mainly–the concept of biscuit manufacture rather than any one aspect of the process.

Ok, maybe that’s enough to present a balanced portrait of the book before I admit I didn’t like it. This is one of those books that I suspect personal bias might be causing me to dislike: because I expected it to be something else, because I am personally writing something similar but different and wish de Botton’s book was more like mine, because I fear a lot of my revulsion for what is in fact a well-written insightful book comes from the fact that is largely a personality project and I really dislike the writer.

But then again, some of my reasoning might be valid. de Botton often fails to report anything from his interviews , instead simply reporting how he views things. When he does bother to engage someone on his or her job, he is so contemptuous that what we learn is not anything about the person other than that de Botton thinks he is smarter than that person. For example, a dialogue with an employee of the biscuit company, about whom we know nothing other than that she “was typing up a document relating to the brand performance of the Moments” (a new biscuit):

“I wondered out loud to Renae why in our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things, and why the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity at the heart of the Industrial Revolution so seldom exteneded beyond the provision of commonplace material goods like shampoo or condoms, oven-gloves or lingerie. I told Renae that our robots and engines were delivering the lion’s share of their benefits at the base of our pyramid of needs, that we were evident experts at swiftly assembling confectionery and yet we were still searching for reliable means of generating emotional stability or marital harmony. Renae had little to add to this analysis. A terrified expression spread across her features and she asked if I might excuse her.”

Some of this is insightful, but you can’t really blame Renae–it’s the dialogue tags like “wondered aloud” and “told” that do it: this is a man essentially talking to himself. And he seems to do so out of the assumption that he’s the only one who really gets it.

The best sections are focussed on single actors, when de Botton actually lets someone else’s personality get some of the spotlight. In one of these, Art, the painter actually comes off at least slightly heroic although mainly silent, but in the career-counsellor is mocked because his house smells like cabbage and he has written an unpublished book. de Botton gives him props for genuinely trying to help people with something difficult, and this probably the most complete portrait in the book, but it’s hardly sympathetic, let alone empathetic.

The bits that made me the craziest were the ones in the Accounting section–he shadowed a couple accounts for a few days, without ever mentioning their names or anything meaningful about them, but he did have long paragraphs on their dreams. They sounded plausible as dreams, by which I mean weird and boring, but they also sounded far more like the author than most other people would dream–I’m pretty sure he made them up! But not at all sure to what end…

The final straw came in the final chapter, Aviation, which begins, “During a time when I was finding it hard to write anything and often spent whole days on my bed wondering about the point of my work…” You know who takes to their beds when things aren’t going well? Aristocrats, the independently wealthy, and Hollywood stars. You know who doesn’t? Working people–anyone with sufficient health, anyway.

When I don’t feel confident in my opinions (I know, I know, an opinion can’t be wrong, and yet…) I read other reviews. This one, in Business Week rather likes the book, but also explains that the author was born wealthy and lived off a trustfund until he rennounced it to live off his writing.

Obviously, to do that, one has to be bloody good, and he is, but I wonder if a melancholy philosopher who seems never to have had what the IRS would regard as a job is the best person to write about the world of work. Two chapters, one on cargo-ship spotters and the other on electrical-line tracking, are about things that *aren’t jobs*. These are hobbies, albeit strenuous ones, that people do in *appreciation* of the work that others do. He does say this in both chapters, but his treatment of the hobbiests and the wage-earners is about the same.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said Hamlet regarding ghosts, but we can expand it to regard all things that cannot be theorized but must be experienced. By relying on theory, musing, and philososophy, I think de Botton makes his book a dream–interesting to mull over, but in the end of little insight into real life.

One Response to “Rose-coloured reviews *The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work* by Alain de Botton”

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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