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Book review:

Alain de Botton: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

(Penguin, 2009)

One of the best books I have ever read, fiction or non-fiction, is Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Penguin, 2009). Brilliantly insightful, gorgeously written, and laugh-out-loud funny, this book takes us on a guided tour of how work actually gets done. We learn about fishing for tuna in the Maldives, making biscuits in Belgium, auditing in London, a space launch in Latin America, transmitting electricity in England, and much much more. De Botton is fascinated with exactly how things work and he conveys this fascination with brio. I didn’t think I was interested in making biscuits or transmitting electricity, but de Botton had me enthralled.

Startling insights flash from every page

It’s as if Marcel Proust had risen from the grave and applied his subtle sensitivity, acute linguistic skills and his erudite interest in historical parallels, to the wonders and absurdities of the modern workplace.

The most mundane activity is brought to life. Thus when de Botton is being kept waiting in the reception area of a grand building on one of the multiple red leather sofas, he notes that the experience “enforces the impression of the importance of one’s hosts in the upper floors.” (p.228)

“A receptionist, no less aware of the solemnity of her role than a priestess at the Temple of Delphi, is on hand for a short initiation ceremony, handing you a badge and directing you to the sofas with a tenuous promise of rescue.” (p228)

“Waiting feels like the oldest of human activities stretching back to the senators pacing outside the emperor’s quarters in imperial Rome and the merchants lined up to see the caliph in the marble–lined palaces of medieval Cordoba.” (p228)

A basement stationery store is “stocked more prodigiously than Aladdin’s cave.” (p.231)

A lamp swaying in the wind is “a satisfyingly obvious symbol of stoicism in adversity.”(p209).

He notes the “poetic concision of intrigues sufficient to animate an epic drama” in a sign that says, “Car wash: under new better management.” (p.212)

A bird watching society “had managed to transform (bird watching) into a formalized and commercially robust activity, one which moreover tacitly claimed a distinct moral superiority over other leisure pursuits”. (p.216)

The "mask of shallow cheerfulness"

His visit to a top-notch global accounting firm in London is unexpectedly hilarious. (de Botton does not reveal the name of the firm, but the NYT's sleuthing reveals that the firm is Ernst & Young.) De Botton penetrates the lives of the people doing the work, as well as that of the chairman of the firm, who tries to appear as normal and as unauthoritative as possible, this being the best strategy for remaining in authority and “preventing him from ever having to be normal again.” (p.251)

He zeroes in on the HR director and her activities which include promoting day care centers and animatedly asking subordinates at monthly get-togethers how they are enjoying their jobs; organizing competitions in landscape painting and karaoke to stimulate creativity; and “Employee of the Month” schemes which reward the winners with river cruises and lunches with the chairman. (p.248)

“For most of human history, the only instruments needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip… Once it became evident that someone who was expected to remove brain tumors, draw up binding legal documents or sell condominiums with convincing energy could not be profitably sullen or resentful, morose or angry, the mental well being of employees commenced to be an object of supreme concern.” (p.244)

Thus it would be plausible but wrong, de Botton says, to judge the HR Director as “an unnecessary sickness”. This would be “to misconstrue the sheer distinctiveness of the contemporary office” as “a factory of ideas”. The HR Director plays a key role in maintaining the mask of shallow cheerfulness that keeps the office running smoothly. It is “the very artificiality of her activities that guarantee their success”, like a party game at a house party that initially invite mockery but, as the game gets under way, participants are surprised to find that the game enables them to “channel their hostilities, identify their affections and escape the agony of insincere chatter”. (p.246)

Yet the success is relative. He notes, tellingly, how little time, amid these systematic efforts at contrived conviviality, is actually spent on real work, and how much is devoted to “daydreams and recuperation”. (p.258)

At the end of the day, the employee, back in his flat, is at a loss. “His mind has been wound to a pitch of concentration by the interactions of the office.” Now the “plug is suddenly pulled from the wall. He is impatient and restless, but simultaneously exhausted and fragile. He is in no state to engage with anything significant. It is impossible to read, for a sincere book would demand not only time but a clear conceptual lawn around the text.” (p.266)

The only solution is wine. “Office civilization could not be feasible without the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol. The final approach will be made under the benign guidance of a Chilean Cabernet and the hypnotic, entirely untroubling retelling of the day’s misdemeanours and cataclysms on the evening news.“ (p.266)

Oh dear! Sex in the office?

In one section, at which The New Yorker magazine raised its prudish eyebrows, de Botton draws a parallel between the modern office and a medieval nunnery, with the profusion of attractive women and their utter unavailability. The unavailability is caused, in the case of the modern office, by the zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, and, in the case of the medieval nunnery, by the total focus on the worship of God and Jesus Christ. But the result, according to de Botton, is the same. Drawing on his own experience, he surmises that the prohibition on sex has the effect of exacerbating sexual interest, while preventing its consummation.

He himself spends time yearning in a good-natured way at the sight of the knee-length grey woolen shorts of a beautiful 22-year old assistant in the Nothern European Retail division of the firm. According to de Botton, “she may be the only person in the vicinity able to concentrate on anything other than the captivating nature of her face and figure.” The policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment happily prevents anything from happening, thus protecting the firm from the awkward truth that sex is more interesting than the work in this particular accounting firm. (p.261)

Is no one happy around here?

If there is a flaw in this book, it is the insistent dwelling on the negative. De Botton finds many sorrows in the workplace, but few pleasures, and little joy. This flows from his mental framework of someone who is looking for sorrows and skeptical of any apparent pleasure. De Botton is always the external observer, looking at people ensnared in rotten jobs with an undisguised air of moral and intellectual superiority. He is attracted to sad failures and suffering misfits, and intent on puncturing the pretensions of anyone who purports to be in any sense successful.

The closest he comes to finding people who passionately enjoy their work are a painter, an electrical engineer and a biscuit factory manager.

The dedicated painter

De Botton clearly views painting as an inherently worthwhile activity. But the particular painter that he chooses to write about is an eccentric chap who doggedly paints the same tree over and over for three years straight. He ends up selling some of the paintings, earning “the equivalent of the annual salary of an unsuccessful plumber.” For an artist, this could actually be seen as a big financial success, but de Botton presents the painter, not as elated by success, but rather “undaunted” by failure. De Botton notes that the artist is “creating objects that are more graceful and intelligent than we normally manage to be”, and yet he finds the activity “impractical”, because it doesn’t make a lot of money. (p.190)

What makes de Botton’s approach interesting, even wildly entertaining, is that he does not exempt himself from criticism. He admits to having been “alive for a troublingly long time.” Some of the funniest sections are self-deprecatory accounts of his own hilariously inept efforts to interact with the modern business world.

The passionate engineer

The second case of someone who is passionately engaged in his work is the engineer who takes de Botton on a 175 km tour of an electricity transmission line in England. The engineer is an aficionado of electric pylons. He founded the Pylon Appreciation Society which is dedicated to gaining acceptance of electric pylons as things of beauty, to be admired rather than reviled. De Botton finds that the society is still-born, only having several members, and lacking funds to do anything. The society is thus another sad example of the futility of doing anything. The fact that the engineer is recently divorced is yet another reassuring sign of futility. (p.199)

The biscuit-factory manager

De Botton responds somewhat positively to a Belgian plant manager in a biscuit factory, a man called Pottier, whom de Botton sees as animating "the Protestant idea of work". Whereas Catholic dogma had limited noble work to that done by priests in the explicit service of God, Protestant doctrine saw value in everyday tasks, holding that apparently unimportant tasks like sweeping the yard or doing the laundry could convey the quality of a person’s soul.

Thus Pottier’s “manner drew attention away from what he was doing in favor of how he was doing it. His approach suggested that there might be a continuity, rather than an insurmountable barrier, between work at the top and bottom of the ladder of meaning—and that the talents exercised in the most exalted tasks were not less likely to be found inside a steel hangar reverberating with the sound of dough mixers and chocolate coating machines.” (p.96)


The New Yorker magazine called de Botton “a charming and first-rate guide” to the world of work, while the New York Times gave it a mixed notice. The disgruntled NYT reviewer (Caleb Crain) declined to enter into the spirit of de Botton's writing, and seemed particularly upset by the aspersions that de Botton casts on the quality of office life, crankily and implausibly accusing de Botton of harboring a secret desire to have an office job for himself.

I recommend Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Penguin, 2009) strongly: provided you understand his mindset and appreciate finely crafted prose, you will find this one of the funniest and wisest books you will ever read.

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