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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work Hardcover – June 2, 2009
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We spend most of our waking lives at work—in occupations often chosen by our unthinking younger selves. And yet we rarely ask ourselves how we got there or what our occupations mean to us.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is an exploration of the joys and perils of the modern workplace, beautifully evoking what other people wake up to do each day—and night—to make the frenzied contemporary world function. With a philosophical eye and his signature combination of wit and wisdom, Alain de Botton leads us on a journey around a deliberately eclectic range of occupations, from rocket science to biscuit manufacture, accountancy to art—in search of what make jobs either fulfilling or soul-destroying.
Along the way he tries to answer some of the most urgent questions we can ask about work: Why do we do it? What makes it pleasurable? What is its meaning? And why do we daily exhaust not only ourselves but also the planet? Characteristically lucid, witty and inventive, Alain de Botton’s “song for occupations” is a celebration and exploration of an aspect of life which is all too often ignored and a book that shines a revealing light on the essential meaning of work in our lives.
Alain de Botton on The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
I wrote The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work to shine a spotlight on the working world. I wanted to write a book that would open our eyes to the beauty and occasional horror of the working world—and I did this by looking at 10 different industries, a deliberately eclectic range from accountancy to engineering, from biscuit manufacture to logistics.
The strangest thing about the world of work is the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy. For thousands of years, work was viewed as something to be done with as rapidly as possible and escaped in the imagination through alcohol or religion. Aristotle was the first of many philosophers to state that no one could be both free and obliged to earn a living. A more optimistic assessment of work had to wait until the eighteenth century and men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, who for the first time argued that one's working life could be at the centre of any desire for happiness. It was during this century that our modern ideas about work were formed—at the very same time as our modern ideas about love and marriage took shape.
In the pre-modern age, it was assumed that no one could try to be in love and married: marriage was something one did for purely commercial reasons. Things were going well if you maintained a tepid friendship with your spouse. Meanwhile, love was something you did with your mistress, with pleasure untied to the responsibilities of child-rearing. Yet the new philosophers of love argued that one might actually aim to marry the person one was in love with rather than just have an affair. To this unusual idea was added the even more peculiar notion that one might work both for money and to realise one's dreams, an idea that replaced the previous assumption that the day job took care of the rent and anything more ambitious had to happen in one's spare time.
We are the heirs of these two very ambitious beliefs: that you can be in love and married, and in a job and having a good time. It has become as impossible for us to think that you could be out of work and happy as it had once seemed impossible for Aristotle to think that you could be employed and human. Thus is born The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. —Alain de Botton
(Photo © Roderick Field)
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This pensive study explores work not as an economic or sociological phenomenon but as an existential predicament. Observing an eclectic sample of workers, from fishermen to a CEO of an accounting firm, de Botton (How Proust Can Change Your Life) counterposes the expansive intelligence embodied in vast business organizations with the blinkered routines of their human cogs and finds that tension rife with philosophical conundrums. Cookie marketers illustrate the link between happiness and triviality in bourgeois society; office drones wear a mask of shallow cheerfulness over the fury and sadness continually aroused by their colleagues; a visit to a satellite launch center contrasts the restrained self-effacement of rocket scientists with their power to upstage the gods during fiery blastoffs. De Botton's humanism recoils at the banality, crassness and forced optimism of the business mindset, but he admires its ability to construct the world—and even finds poetry in a supermarket supply chain that flies blood-red strawberries... over the Arctic Circle by moonlight, leaving a trail of nitrous oxide across a black and gold sky. (The book includes evocative photos of commercial and industrial sites.) De Botton's sprightly mix of reportage and rumination expands beyond the workplace to investigate the broader meaning of life. (June 2)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Top customer reviews
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.
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?"
I had never read de Botton prior to this book, and was immediately struck by his writing style. He seems *very* enamored with his own vocabulary, and favors writing in a way that feels lyrical or poetic, even when a thought could--and probably should--be expressed more concisely. As I imagine he might write, "I mused over his elegiac phrasings, helpless to wonder whether innate truths that accompanied his observations were obscured beneath the syntax of their transcription."
Despite this, some passages seemed genuinely insightful and worth highlighting with my Kindle, like, "The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality," or, "There seemed to be few man-made innovations whose creation had not exacted a disproportionate degree of sacrifice and ingenuity," or, "At two in the morning, I switched on the light and took a formal decision to read until daybreak, so as spitefully to acquaint the wakeful side of me with the full consequences of its insurrection," which made me laugh. But overall, the set of insights I chose to take away from this book were small, and I was left wanting a deeper philosophical study instead of the thematic wanderlust I got.
As someone who has complained (almost every single day) at the menial office-work I currently do, his observations about meaning of modern life are entertaining and helpful. Mostly, I've just enjoyed what he's written; but I also feel like I've gained a more clear idea of how the modern consumer world works and what my place is within it.
That others in this machine of modern economics are also reading this book--thinking about why they do what they do and what it all means--gives me more optimism about humanity in general; there are more thoughtful people out there like me, reading this book on their lunch breaks and thinking about the meaning of work, that unfortunate thing that steals a third of our lives and half of our conversations.