Sunday, April 26, 2009

25 April - 29 April: The pleasures and sorrows of work by Alain de Botton.

I am always a bit apprehensive to admit that I like the books of Alain de Botton. They balance precariously between the self-help guides ( How to get what you want in 7 easy lessons) and philosophy books for “dummies”, you’ll find at Airport bookstalls.
This is of course a misplaced feeling. Not only are Botton’s books very well written and readable, they are also crammed with intelligent knowledge, thoughts and references to Art and Philosophy.

In his book “Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, de Botton guides us¸ in his clear and erudite prose, through the world of “Work”. He gives us a broad canvas of labour in all it’s aspects. Work is the activity which fills our life, which give us our “raison d’etre” and especially helps us to pay our mortgage.

The journey starts on the murky banks of the river Thames, where together with some “Boat spotters”, de Botton stands in awe for the huge container ships. He feels, before the commercial and industrial endeavours of the human kind, the same awe as the tourists in front of the Cathedral of Chartres. This is a normal feeling says de Botton. The human activities of building Ocean going ships, steering them around the globe, loading and unloading and dispatching it’s goods around England is as huge an accomplishment as building a cathedral in the fourteenth century.

In ten chapters, de Botton follows and introduces us to all kinds of people at work. We meet fisherman in the Indian Ocean, pilots, truck drivers, bookkeepers, inventors, cookie bakers, managers, marketers and even airplane component salespeople.
All of them take their job very seriously, organize themselves and with a lot of self discipline work to reach their respective objectives and targets.

Most of us are just cogs in a giant, complex network of tasks. Often, we do not realize where we stand in the chain of activities in which we participate. “How can we then take pleasure in our work?” demands de Botton.

The last chapter brings us to an Airplane cemetery in the desert. These skeletons, not unlike classical ruins, are clear statements of where all our activities, power and glory finally end. These planes, once at the edge of our technological knowhow, are now just metal scraps. This junk is sobering and at the same time comforting. It reminds us that in the end all our activity, our drive for wealth and glory is restricted in time.

And here de Bottom comes to his conclusion. Not only will a lifetime of working bring us material comfort or at least bread on our table, it will also offer a distraction from our Human condition. It gives us the possibility to strive and to attain our own small ambitions and accomplishments in an environment which we can intellectually grasp. Our preoccupation with our work will help us to forget our mortality and our temporarily presence in this world.

The pleasure and sorrows of work comes a bit as a disappointment.

I had the impression, after reading “Status anxiety”, the Botton’s previous book, that he was getting a bit more serious than his reputation of “the Rock & Roll philosopher”, but in “Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, the intellectual analyses of his observations remain restricted to just a few lines mainly in the last chapter.

I also missed the references to works of Art, Literature and Philosophy which are “the pepper and salt” of the otherwise brainy intellectual topics he is serving us. A short reference to Hopper and Ruskin, which we already know from his previous books, is all we get.
I would have enjoyed, even in his relaxed style, a more profound philosophical study of labour and what it does to us.


Well, if you are new to de Botton, you better read “How Proust can change your life” or “ The art of travel “, my two favourites and if you have already read de Botton’s other works, than this one will be a bit of a let-down.