and Sorrows of Work
Alain de Botton
Pantheon: 328 pp. $26
Alain de Botton knows something about work. He’s written books on travel, on architecture, on philosophy, on love, on literature -- nine altogether, at a clip of one every 22 months. No topic is too big, no continent too far, no century too distant for his perusal. One senses a writer unafraid to do whatever work needs doing.
In “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” De Botton sets off on a series of journeys -- to a biscuit factory in eastern Belgium, to a rocket launching pad in French Guiana, to the Maldives, to an inventor’s fair and an aviation convention -- in an attempt to connect the worker to the work, and labor to product and consumer. Even 200 years ago, he suggests, our ancestors knew the ingredients of the products they consumed, where they came from and how they were made. We, on the other hand -- as Karl Marx suggested we would -- remain alienated from the stuff of our lives.
De Botton is a point-of-view adept, climbing into the thermosphere to look down on Libya and New Zealand, San Juan and Addis Ababa, then zooming into the entrails of a jumbo jet’s electronics; careening back in time to the birth of our species and forward to reflect on which of our current labors might leave a trace 300 years from now. He U-turns back to golden age Athens, shoots up for an imagined aerial view of a contemporary industrial park, takes a whiplash close-up on an accountant’s desk plate. The Belgian biscuit factory, De Botton tells us, generates more in profits each year than Henry VIII and Elizabeth I did jointly in their entire reigns, while the head of the Blackstone Group has a private fortune that outstrips “the wealth of all the kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa since the discovery of fire.”
Still, for all his perspectival breadth and depth, the author doesn’t get very far in connecting producer, production and product. Although he is, as ever, overflowing with fascinating apercus and enormously entertaining, he rarely focuses on the daily grind, on labor as most of the world knows it.
Perhaps that’s because work is, finally, not De Botton’s real subject. What interests him, as it has throughout his career, is happiness. In “The Architecture of Happiness” (2006), he asserts that even our buildings should “stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.” In “How Proust Can Change Your Life” (1997), he wants to show how Proust can increase our chances at happiness, or at least tell us something about avoiding unhappiness. “The Consolations of Philosophy” (2000) includes lists of what Epicurus and De Botton himself consider essential for pleasure and ends with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who claim in different ways that the quest for happiness brings no joy. In the introduction to “The Art of Travel” (2002), he takes for granted that “our lives are dominated by the pursuit of happiness,” and claims that he is interested in travel for what it reveals about that conflicted and paradoxical pursuit.
This is what De Botton finds confounding about work: He can’t understand how it could make anyone happy. Rather, he claims, we are “prone to fall into crises of meaning at our computer terminals and our warehouses, contemplating with low-level despair the banality of our labor.” He is astonished at rocket scientists who submerge what he assumes to be their desire for glory and fame in group projects, flabbergasted that accountants have “no desire to undertake the kind of work which makes any claim to leave a lasting legacy.”
The workers never express these feelings; at least De Botton never reports them doing so. Like a novelist, he observes people and imagines their thoughts, conjures their dreams and despondency, speculates about what they feel when they arrive at their workplace, and otherwise makes stuff up.
Some will find this a crime against nonfiction, on par with his occasionally suspect, habitual narrativizing of ideas. He rarely mentions a painting without conveniently stumbling upon it in a museum or a philosophical idea without framing it in an anecdote from the thinker’s life.
But others, as I do, will appreciate De Botton’s genre-bending, innovative approach. Since his earliest efforts, which were more vehemently hybrid -- more clearly half novel, half treatise -- he has played with the rules and forms of the essay, developing a genre of his own, a kind of speculative nonfiction.
This book, like many of his, is practically a photo essay, with more than 100 shots by Richard Baker and a dozen or so more by others. The photos are sometimes illustrative, sometimes tangential. De Botton is interested, finally, in what he calls “lyrical associations,” and the photos function as such. His own lyricism does an enormous amount of work -- churning images, associations, facts, ideas, insights and perspectives into something too dynamic to call a collage, too diffuse to constitute an argument, and too compelling and beautifully written to ignore.
His inspiration for the book came, he claims, when he observed men on the banks of the Thames, obsessively noting the comings and goings of massive container ships and tankers. This is not really work but an observation of it at some distance, and this seems to be the core of De Botton’s method. It’s 40 pages before we get our first representation of actual work -- a single sentence in which warehouse workers put goods on automated runways. Twenty pages more pass before work makes its next appearance, when two fishermen haul a tuna aboard a boat, kill it and drop it in a freezer.
De Botton traces the passage of this fish from ocean to plate, and along the way a lot more work goes unmentioned. We visit the cockpit of the plane that flies the fish to England, but we meet no pilots. Nobody lifts the tuna again after it is in the ship’s freezer, although we do see it filleted in a couple of sentences. No one wraps it, prices it or rings it up at the cash register. No one cooks it.
De Botton is a philosopher, and he seems impatient with work itself, eager to jump to what it means. To talk about work, he rightly surmises, requires talking about alienation and happiness, about global production systems and industrial engineering, about specialization and marketing, and he keeps all these balls in the air. As a result, we come away from his book with no real conclusions about work, but instead, a sense that for any topic this big, there can be no grand argument. In the place of easy answers, De Botton offers an array of potent and portable insights about the delight and despair we find, daily, in our working lives.