The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: Reviews

Brenton Holmes in the Canberra Times, 4 April 2009

Alain de Botton describes his latest book as ‘a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace’. It is an apt description. In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, de Botton sifts and weighs the confusions and contradictions that make our daily grind the source, potentially, of our finest moments and our most harrowing disappointments. Because our Western, commercially driven culture has elevated work to somewhere on a par with love as a giver of meaning to our lives, de Botton has decided that it is something to which we should pay serious attention. The pleasure of the book, as with all of de Botton’s writings, is that his seriousness is deployed without heaviness. He invites us to share a number of close personal encounters with the lives and logistics attached to an eclectic mix of occupations – engineer, counsellor, painter, fisherman, accountant, biscuit maker, entrepreneur. In so doing, he holds multiple mirrors up to our own workplace experiences, daring us to reflect upon uneasy questions and neglected assumptions about work, and probing its significance as the focus of much of our time, energy and emotion. In one chapter, the subject of de Botton’s inquiry is a painter, whose talent and seriousness as an artist is not matched by commercial success in the galleries. He has just spent two years producing multiple paintings of an oak tree, in various seasons and under different light conditions. We learn that his next project is to spend several years painting the River Colne in its various moods and lights. The painter asks de Botton ‘Have you ever noticed water? Properly noticed it, I mean – as if you had never seen it before?’ The question struck me as capturing the essence of de Botton’s achievement with The Joys and Sorrows of Work, and explaining more broadly his gifts as a writer of distinctively philosophical bent who has consistently won a readership to which most serious intellectuals could not even aspire. (Perhaps this lies behind the occasional sneer that comes de Botton’s way.) He has a gift for properly noticing things, and a capacity to illuminate them with enticing prose that blends erudition, witty allusion and a sense of wonder. He delivers on the Blakean ideal of seeing the world in a grain of sand, or holding eternity in an hour, and his readers are the wiser and more uplifted for it. The opening chapter is an engrossing account of cargo ships nosing their way up the River Thames on an October day. He conjures up the world of global shipping and trade, not as a necessary but uninteresting exercise in logistics, but as intimately bound up with enabling us to live the everyday lives that we take for granted. A car transporter disgorges Hyundai Amicas, ‘smelling of newly minted plastic and synthetic carpet, [that] will bear witness to sandwich lunches and arguments, love-making and motorway songs. They will be driven to beauty spots and left to gather leaves in school car parks. A few will kill their owners.’ From other ships’ holds are sucked the raw materials that will find their way into toothpaste, newsprint, laundry detergent, breakfast cereal and gravy mix, along with other ‘less celebrated ingredients that lie behind the smooth functioning of our utilitarian civilisation’. Keeping all these processes running efficiently and safely are chemists, physicists and engineers who have devoted their lives to the ‘storage of flammable solvents or the reaction of wood pulp to water vapour’ and who ‘in their leisure time leaf through the Hazardous Cargo Bulletin’.

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