The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work: Reviews

Kirkus Reviews, 2 April 2009

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Novelist/essayist de Botton (The Architecture of Happiness, 2006, etc.) turns his inquisitive eye to the business of work.

For many of us, writes the author, the “unreasonable banality” of work requires “daily submission at the altars of prudence and order,” typically housed in drab, soulless workplaces. (The many photographs are striking proof.) From the beginning of his latest philosophical excursion, however, de Botton appreciates that work is a meaningful act, if only in the most elemental sense—workers need to put food on the table. Still, the author found a certain heroic beauty in many of the work environments he visited, including that of an aircraft salesman, a biscuit manufacturer, an electricity-transmission engineer, a career counselor, a painter and an accountant. In each instance, he unhurriedly poked into the workings of the job, examined the possibilities for gleaning pleasure from it and embraced the Protestant worldview that “humility, wisdom, respect, and kindness could be practiced in a shop no less sincerely than in a monastery”—no matter how clownish-looking the activity, especially in an economy increasingly based on satisfying peripheral desires. There is something to be said about the delight generated by an artist’s creations, or the happy, heedless energy of entrepreneurs, who require “a painfully uncommon synthesis of imagination and realism.” Work may be trivial, de Botton notes, but what’s interesting is the determination and gravity we bring to it.

A luminous photo-essay from a consistently fresh and noble writer.

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