Work - Reviews
The Australian, Review published 11th April 2009
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
In The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham's Cold War science fiction classic, most of the world's people wake up one morning to discover that, overnight, they have gone blind. The Earth is otherwise intact but, straight away, civilisation collapses.
Within a few weeks most of the world's population is dead from starvation, misadventure, suicide or disease.For the small number of sighted survivors, everything is there for the taking: huge existing stocks of equipment, materials and foodstuffs, as well as virtually limitless natural resources.
But they are hampered by almost total ignorance of even the basics of human subsistence. And the contents of all the world's libraries are of limited help.
Bill Masen, the novel's Everyman narrator, muses at one point: "It had never occurred to any writer on the subject that any potential farmer could be starting from absolute zero ... My specialised biological knowledge was all but useless to me in the face of practical problems."
Wyndham was writing in 1951. The world, then, was already a highly atomised place, but almost 60 years later the situation is far more pronounced. I do not know whether Alain de Botton has read The Day of the Triffids, but one of the core themes of his latest book is that so memorably dramatised by Wyndham. The "unremitting division of labour" is, with technology, the source of the modern human's unparalleled affluence, yet it is also the principal cause of ouralienation, our lack of curiosity and our exquisite vulnerability.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a collection of 10 essays, each devoted to a specialised vocation. These range extremely broadly, from deep-sea tuna fishing to biscuit manufacture, career counselling to rocket science. De Botton travels to some far-flung destinations (the Maldives, French Guiana, a medieval village in Belgium) as well as many not-so-glamorous sites in his home, England (Tilbury container terminal, Heathrow airport, "a run-down suburban street in south London").
He interviews people at the coalface and has the knack of spotting and describing telling details. Each essay is accompanied by striking black-and-white photographs taken by the talented Richard Baker.
De Botton describes the book as "a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace". His twin aims are, first, to demonstrate the finely balanced interconnectedness of 21st-century global society and, second, to explore the factors that make a job meaningful (or not) for the person who performs it. This is easily the best of de Botton's books to date. Some of his earlier titles, including best-sellers The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety, struck me as trite. But the tone here is pitch-perfect. De Botton writes with wisdom, conciseness and slyly mordant wit.
One reliable test of an essayist's ability is to read something they have written on a subject about which you possess intimate knowledge. How often are such pieces marred by elementary errors and shallow prejudices? It is rare to find one that is even competent, let alone genuinely illuminating. De Botton passes this test superbly. I spent 19 years working as a commercial lawyer in Sydney, and can attest that de Botton's photo-essay about the (closely comparable) world of mega-firm accounting in London is amazingly -- indeed, frighteningly -- accurate.
You will learn more in these 40 pages about the day-to-day reality of life as a "service-provider" for the neo-liberal corporate world than you would watching a thousand h