Work - Reviews
The Sydney Morning Herald, Reviewed by Andrew Riemer.
A sharp bird's-eye view of a muddled civilisation
THE prolific Alain de Botton's latest book is ostensibly about work - how we work, why we work and the impact of the daily grind on our innermost lives. It is, however, about much more than that. The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work is a pilgrimage through the late-industrial world that ends in a graveyard in the Mojave Desert. There, like countless poets and philosophers before him, he meditates on decay, disintegration and death. This is no ordinary burial ground, however, but a place "strewn with undercarriages and engines, seats and cargo boxes, ailerons and elevators" - in short, a graveyard of dead planes. The vision provokes a realisation of a kind that came to Thomas Gray, for instance, in a country churchyard 21/2 centuries ago. "What makes the prospect of death distinctive in the modern age is the background of permanent technological and sociological revolution against which it is set, and which serves to strip us of any faith in the permanence of our labours." In the course of his peregrinations, de Botton passes several characteristic (though often ignored) monuments of our civilisation: a cargo ship making its way along the foggy Thames estuary; immense distribution warehouses rising near motorway junctions; a biscuit factory in Belgium; a rocket launching site in the insectinfested jungle of French Guiana; the gird of high-tension electricity lines connecting a nuclear power station in Kent with a substation in central London "at the rear of a Chinese restaurant specialising in Szechuan peppered duck". From time to time he focuses on more cerebral pursuits: a oneman career counselling service "run from the back of an unassuming and cramped Victorian home in a run-down residential street" reeking of stewed cabbage; entrepreneurship, including the invention of shoes fitted with miniature outboard motors to allow the fortunate wearer to walk over water; the rituals of accountancy; and the obsessive dedication of an artist who has spent years producing paintings of a single oak tree in all seasons and at all times of the day. As he surveys these activities and the lives of the men and women involved in them, de Botton comes to be preoccupied by the paradoxical nature of what Samuel Johnson called (in a poem written at practically the same time as Gray was meditating on mortality in a rural graveyard).