on June 8, 2009
This is an enjoyable book that accurately captures the day-to-day aspects of everyday working life that most of us ignore as we go along our daily grind. Each chapter focuses on a different occupation from accountant to artist to cargo ship spotter and takes the reader through a day in the life of each profession all the while examining the pleasures and frustrations that each job entails. This book's greatest strengh (and at the same time the source of its biggest weakness) is that it's written from the perspective of a tourist who briefly visits a new occupation for a day and then moves on.
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.
De Botton is a gifted observer. His art is both to notice and meaningfully comment on facets of life too often glossed over; of beauty and elegance unappreciated. In prior works he has demonstrated the value of complex metaphysics, Proustian prose, architecture and travel--wonderful and engrossing works. However, this most recent volume strikes the tone of a mid-life crisis, of a focus on what is wrong rather than what is right; something not foreign to this frustrated attorney who would gladly trade places with a globe-trotting author. But perhaps that is the entire point of the work, we blithely judge the travails of another at our own peril.
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.
on June 13, 2009
Alain de Botton continues to charm in this exploration of questions related to work.
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.
on August 25, 2009
Something about Alain de Botton's writing captivates me. Though great chunky paragraphs of this photo essay are taken up with things which are banal on the surface like detailed descriptions of how biscuits are manufactured or the workings of electricity lines, the author's pithy observations about the individuals involved and his asides about the nature of being are engrossing. This author investigates an eclectic range of professions such as tuna fishing, career counselling, painting and accountancy. He begins the book by pondering the complex network of work involved which delivers to us goods in our everyday lives and how we are largely blithely unaware of these goods' origins. He then investigates a series of professions as a base point, engaging with the professionals involved in order to try to understand how this labour relates to their place in the world. The result is a sort of travelogue, each section containing a large amount of photographs to accompany the text, created with the help of photographer Richard Baker. Many of these pictures are beautiful and poignant in themselves, adding an even greater depth and understanding to the text which runs alongside them.
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.
on October 16, 2009
I'm not sure what I was expecting when I purchased this book at a small shop in Key West, FL. Perhaps I thought "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" would provide a trenchant view of the state of modern-day work or give a unique window on work experiences like Studs Terkel's groundbreaking book of oral histories "Working." Instead, it felt like Botton had lined up a set of unrelated excursions to work environments that were simply published in book form, lacking any coherency.
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.
on June 22, 2014
I am a fan of Alain de Botton and particularly enjoyed "The Consolation of Philosophy". In "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" I loved his insight into our attempts to create meaning, especially in areas of life where we seem to be simply a cog in a machine. I enjoyed the diversity of these stories of working lives and the way Alain de Botton immerses himself as far as possible in the experiences of others.It provoked reflection on my own working life and its significance orinsignificance. Ultimately the book left me feeling rather sad perhaps because of the grim picture of globalisation and the monster of capitalism portrayed through these personal stories.
on March 26, 2016
A great success from modern day philosopher Alain de Botton. I read this book while between jobs, and it was incredibly insightful and thought provoking. It makes its readers ask the question "What am I working for, what is the point of work, what do I enjoy and what don't I enjoy?"
While at times the author's viewpoints seem to be a bit... condescending towards the types of modern work that many of us must endure, and perhaps even *enjoy* (accounting, data entry, and other "non-creative" fields), he does a good job of dissecting the modern day job and its place in our lives.
A great read for anyone trying to search for some meaning in their careers and figure out "why am I doing this every day?"
.. Ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment or a penance.'
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?
These are very different workplaces, and the expectations (if not the needs) of those who work in them are also different. Or are they? These essays don't so much contain certainties as they invite the reader to think about possibilities. Many of us are well aware of the importance of the work we and those important to us perform. Many of us are aware that today's modern society requires an extraordinarily complex set of occupations and divisions of labour to keep it functioning. Few of us know much, in detail, about many of those occupations. And while we don't need to, sometimes it's good to be reminded of the variety of ways in which humankind occupy themselves in the form of work.
I enjoyed reading these essays, and it has given me food for thought about the choices we make in relation to work and its meaning in our lives.
Most of what we humans do in the name of "work" will never be recognized, possibly never even be noticed, and will quickly crumble into dust in little less time than it takes us to crumble and die ourselves. One of humanity's greatest achievements is our ability to ignore all this and attempt to achieve things anyway.
That sober, even dark message lies at the heart of "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work," a meditation that suggests there are in our vast warehouses or soulless steel and glass office towers a lot fewer pleasures than sorrows. Even the monochrome photos that accompany the text are often depressing. But it would be too simple to categorize this as merely a downer with no redeeming virtues. On the contrary, I found this a very interesting and thought-provoking work, and quite enjoyed not only Alain de Botton's narrative skill, but particularly his ability to draw thoughtful and even philosophical conclusions from simple observations. Ultimately, de Botton dares to see the heroic in the facelessness of accounting, in the architecture of electrical pylons, even in the violence and discomfort of commercial fishing.
I've heard or read Mr. de. Botton's work in several different media now and have always found it worth savoring. "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" can be read quickly, but I think it would especially repay lingering over. Beyond the somewhat bleak first appearances, there is a lot the thoughtful reader can take away from these impressions of "work" and life.
on October 11, 2009
I have read a couple of books by Alain. My favourite, Status Anxiety, was by far his best work. Pleasures and Sorrows of work is a somewhat drawn out affair, thin on content. He could have completed the objectives he sets out in his book in half the pages.
He does write well, and if you like wordy, descriptive stories about his experiences while investigating the working lives of a range of people in various industries and cultures, then you may get more out of it than I did. I didn't find any amazing revelations that changed my life and perception to work. But you might.