Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: A philosophical overview of a collection of professions.
What is it that we do for most of our adult life, the activity we dedicate most of our time to (with the possible exception of sleeping)? The answer is work, of course. Work is so important to us that most of us would present themselves to others by stating their profession first. Yet, when you look at it, we tend to overlook work when we think about ourselves and what we stand for. Compare work with procreation: We spend much more time on the former, yet we tend to focus our attention on the latter.
To the rescue steps Alain de Botton, a writer that took a hold of a special niche: the philosophical observation of the mundane. And by mundane I mean the things we're taking for granted, like the buildings we live in (Architecture of Happiness) or the underlying reasons for the things that motivate us (Status Anxiety).
In his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, de Botton provides us with a collection of photo essays, each looking at different professions. The main idea is that these professions represent most of what working adults do nowadays, and look at what these professions say about us and what we say (or avoid saying) about them. Thus de Botton goes sailing with tuna fishermen in the third world, visits the launch of a satellite to space, accompanies a touring career consultant, interviews the head of a major internaitonal accountancy, covers a major international aviation exhibtion, and analyzes the design of a chocolate biscuit (to name a few of de Botton's escapades). More importantly, he analyzes how the work conducted by these professionals affects their lives outside of work, too.
The approach to all of his professions of choice is similar: de Botton tries to identify a representative individual, or a collection of representative individuals, and then he casts an examining look at their lives - both during and out of work. The results of these investigations is a collection of observation tending to the philosophical, not unlike this blogger's but definitely much more interesting and much better written. Indeed, de Botton's writing style is unique: Unlike my preferred approach of trying to write the way I would talk to another person in order to guarantee their comprehension, de Botton utilizes intentionally elongated sentences and a rich vocabulary one does not tend to encounter outside of a dictionary. It could sound pompous, and it often is, but de Botton doesn't abuse his language: he uses his rich vocabulary to specify the slightest nuances of the ideas he is trying to convey, and it works well. Combined with the accompanying photos, de Botton's messages are touching and direct; there is no beating around the bush when, for example, he describes his opinion as to why the multinational accounting company needs to have the very strict code of conduct regulations it has, and why - for very similar reasons - the accountant he travels on the train with to their London office tends to find herself sharing the ride with people who hide behind the morning newspaper.
The accompanying photos are worth an extra word. They're simply superb and they contribute a lot to the stories de Botton is telling (and you can see some of them, probably the lesser ones that didn't make it into the book, at de Botton's website here); I would love to see more adult oriented books incorporate graphics this way to enhance the delivery of their message.
The end result is a book loaded with ideas that will make you think a lot about the work you do and the work others do. I'll demonstrate it on myself first by asking what worth does my IT job represent given the fact that whatever it is I am doing at the office is bound to be discarded and replaced in just two or three years. Or, looking at it from another perspective, what are people looking for when they go to the office given that what they do fails to directly contribute to my own good or to society's greater good.
Overall, interesting insight is plentiful; there's a dedicated point to almost every page. It's all very relevant and quite intriguing, so much so that I could not hold myself from picking the book up and reading, something that in this age of the Internet and the PlayStation does not happen too often. de Botton managed to create a book that is relevant to virtually all of us, and did it so well the book is bound to entertain all that come in its way. What de Botton has produced is an ode to work similar to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but an ode that looks at both the good and the bad, the pleasures and the sorrows.
Overall: Entertaining, thought provoking an exciting. But most of all, unique. 5 out of 5 stars.

A Note added on 4 November 2009: As per this post's comments, the book's photographer (Richard Baker) has asked if I could add a link to a far wider archive of pictures that were produced for this project. Have a look at them here.


Richard Baker said...

Hello Moshe,

I very much enjoyed the review of Alain's book - however, as the photographer who collaborated on The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I wonder if you'd be good enough to link to a far wider archive of pictures that were produced for this project? They are listed in their respective chapter headings and will give another perspective on the journeys that Alain and I took together:


Thank you and best wishes,

Richard Baker.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thank you very much for the note. For the record, let it be said I'm jealous (even if I would have preferred to avoid some of the tuna related action myself).