Work - Reviews
The Guardian, 4th April 2009
Labours without love
From How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) to The Architecture of Happiness (2006), Alain de Botton has informed, upset, annoyed, surprised and generally entertained readers. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a different sort of project, consisting of more reportage than usual, and less arch philosophical musing. Yet the author's trademark style, with its clarity and wan detachment, is present throughout.
De Botton usually mixes idiosyncratic illustrations or photographs with an array of memorable quotations. He quotes rarely in the new book, but photographs abound - more like documentary evidence than images designed to prick the imagination. This seems in keeping with a book composed of reports from the field. In looking closely at specific arenas of labour, he hopes this book will serve as "a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life's meaning."
De Botton finds more sorrows than pleasures as he takes us through a series of 10 self-contained studies, isolating strands in the complex weave that constitutes "the workplace". We visit a bleak harbour on the Thames, where ungainly cargo ships arrive and depart with remorseless consistency, largely unnoticed by anyone not directly involved with the products they transport. We tour a set of grim warehouses, "one of the largest and most technologically advanced logistics parks in Europe", in a lively chapter focused on the practicalities of shunting goods (mostly foodstuffs, many of them perishable) to their destination on supermarket shelves - an astonishing feat that consumers generally ignore. In this same chapter, the author tracks a tuna from its origins in the depths of the Indian ocean to an eight-year-old boy's dinner table in Bristol. This reportage was not easy, as De Botton notes: "Attempts to trace - let alone to witness or photograph - how warm-water fish reach our tables are liable to provoke within the industry some of the same suspicion which must have greeted enquiries into the slave trade in the 1780s."
De Botton radiates energy, taking us inside various industries, including an industrial biscuit bakery in Belgium and the soulless London headquarters of one of the world's largest accountancy firms. In another chapter, we follow the route (and engineering wizardry) of electrical transmission lines as they snake from pylon to pylon through the English countryside into London. Elsewhere, we consider rocket science and the aviation industry, always with an eye to the question that obsesses the author: "When does a job feel meaningful?"
He gives us an answer: "Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others." This is easier said than done, of course. Certainly Stephen Taylor, a landscape painter profiled in "Painting", seems to enjoy lying in a field painting versions of "the same oak tree under a range of different lights and weathers", even though few will buy his pictures. Most people seem to struggle with finding satisfying work, which is perhaps why a chapter on career counselling lies at the intellectual centre of this book.
In this chapter De Botton seeks out Robert Symons, a psychologist who advises others on their choice of a career from his "unassuming and cramped Victorian home in a run-down residential street in South London". It must be said that De Botton turns his no