Philosopher Alain de Botton dissects the wide world of work, from the heavenly to the hellish
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
By Alain de Botton
Pantheon; 327 pp.; $26
Alain de Botton is the Swiss-born heir to a massive fortune; his father, Gilbert, co-founded Global Asset Management alongside Jacob Rothschild. But de Botton boldly swore off his trust fund, dropped out of the philosophy PhD program at Harvard, and vowed to live solely off his writing. It doesn't appear he'll have to recant. The 39-year-old's widely read books build philosophical tone poems out of the granular stuff of everyday life. His new work, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, is an examination of the thing most of us spend the bulk of our lives doing. And also the thing, alongside love and perhaps children, from which we derive our identities. All societies have had work at their center, de Botton says, but modern Western culture is the first to assume that a "meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment."
To get a handle on this vast subject, he explores warehouses, skyscrapers, and career fairs, homing in on jobs that tend to fall into one of two categories: heavenly or hellish. The book has 10 chapters covering 10 professions as varied as cargo-ship spotter (a satisfying occupation—who knew?) and career counselor (personified by an old-timer who coaxes clients to embrace envy as the path to fulfillment). In each case, de Botton does a New Journalism-style immersion and delivers a quirky account reminiscent of both Aristotle and The Office.
Professions are celebrated. And skewered. The main character in de Botton's chapter on painting is a struggling, middle-aged artist who "found his teachers on museum walls" and spent three years determining "how best to render the movement of wheat." It is in losing himself at his easel in the English countryside that he transforms from the pub-going, penniless son of a postman into the "heir to Titian."
Compare that with accountants, the craftsmen of capitalism who toil in their tall, airless temples. De Botton depicts them as hollowed-out sleepwalkers, citizens of a civilization that "could not be feasible without the hard takeoffs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol." The bean counters' only salvation is in each other: "How satisfying it is to be held in check by the assumptions of colleagues, instead of being forced to contemplate ... all that one might have been and now never will be."
Yes, he's heavy. He's also hilarious. The chapter on logistics includes a photo essay that comes off like a mockumentary made by vegans. De Botton follows a tuna from its bloody clubbing on a boat in the Maldives to a dinner plate in Bristol, England. Along the way, he treats readers to a cast of eccentrics, including the Renaissance man who runs a fish factory, a wavy-haired romantic whose favorite book is Donald Trump's Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life.
His biggest takedown is inflicted on behemoth baker United Biscuits. He depicts a company infatuated with innovation, an exercise de Botton depicts as a farce: the biscuit makers genuflecting "before pastry" in an attempt to answer "psychological yearnings with dough." Writes de Botton: "I wondered whether the biscuits might not be a part of the very problem that they had been designed to address, whether their production and marketing was not indeed contributing to precisely the feelings of emptiness and nervous tension which they claimed to alleviate."
De Botton—whose own résumé is free of any taint of the corporate—finds the world of work full of grief. He believes its banality often burns out the brightest minds. To him, Friday-night bar fights are symptoms of "fury at our incarceration."
In one scene, de Botton drops his cover and talks of such things to an office worker. He riffs on all the mental horsepower going into "shampoo or condoms, oven-gloves or lingerie" when people could be focusing instead on emotional harmony and marital bliss. The corporate striver stares at de Botton, mouth agape. She clearly sees him as a freak—and turns back to her computer monitor. And that, for de Botton, sums up a job's ultimate purpose: "Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done."