Recommended reading: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - coverI’ve just finished reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work an enjoyable and uniquely insightful book by Alain de Botton.

In de Botton’s own words, he wrote the book to “shine a spotlight on the working world,” exploring both its beauty and its beastliness. By turning a philosopher’s eye on the intricacies of labor and trade, de Botton has produced a compelling series of essays that focus on life’s hidden minutiae, offering insights into working people as well as the taken-for-granted structure of the world around us.

The Poetry of Work

The essays are compelling reading – and not only because the approach is novel and the writing superb. De Botton takes us to places most of us have never been, showing us the vast global framework of cargo ships and warehouses, delving deep into their particular logic and strange beauty. He takes us to anonymous structures on the outskirts of the urban core, where:

“…vessels slip in continuously, during humid summers and fog-bound winters, night and day, to deliver the bulk of London’s gravel and its reinforced steel, its soya beans and coal, its milk and its paper pulp, the sugar cane for its biscuits and the hydrocarbons for its generators – an area as noteworthy as any of the museums of the city, but about which the guidebooks are silent.”

De Botton sees poetry in areas others overlook, such as the food distribution facility in the British midlands, where, in early December:

“…twelve thousand strawberries wait in the semi-darkness. They flew in from California yesterday, crossing over the Arctic Circle by moonlight, writing a trail of nitrogen across a black and gold sky.”

It’s a Small World, After All

In his chapters on the global supply chain, de Botton bridges the divide between the First and Third Worlds, detailing how cold-eyed, lifeless fish are transported around the globe by an assortment of humanity. His single-minded pursuit of the journey of a slab of frozen tuna – from the ocean off the Maldives to an eight-year-old’s supper plate in a Bristol kitchen – takes the form of a stark photo-essay.

Eccentricity Generation

The book skirts the edge of pathos when it teases the poetic from a Monty-Pythonesque cast of eccentric characters:

  • The man who painted multiple pictures of a lone oak tree for two years, come rain or shine;
  • A three-day journey by the founding member of the Pylon Appreciation Society from the Kent Coast to East London, cataloging the 542 pylons that provide illumination for Oxford Street shops;
  • An independent career counselor whose conducts business with clients in a house that smells of cabbage; and
  • The inventor of a pair of shoes that walk on water.

And if you want to know what Japanese day-time television, French Guiana, the freezing point of hydrogen and the fragile ego of a Hong Kong journalist have in common, read the chapter on Rocket Science to find out.

Lese Majeste

All of de Botton’s characters are treated with gentleness and respect. The one time de Botton seems to be peeved by a subject of his inquiries is, unfortunately, the one place in the book where the cloak of anonymity fails him. His long chapter on ‘Accountancy’ profiles the European headquarters of “one of the world’s largest accountancy firms,” and his interview with the chairman of the operation is singularly bad-tempered. De Botton notes that the senior executive has forsworn the trappings of authority – sitting in an open cubicle, asking people to call him by his first name – yet, as the author scathingly notes:

“…power has not disappeared entirely; it has merely been reconfigured. It is by posing as a regular employee that the chairman stands his best chance of preserving his seniority. His subordinates admire the sincerity with which he pretends to share their fate, while he privately recognises that only a convincing show of normalcy will prevent him from ever having to be normal again.”

Say what?

More convincing are the comments on the frequent internal presentations the top guy delivers “against a backdrop of PowerPoint slogans”:

“It is evident that success in his job will ultimately depend less on anything he might do than on his relative luck in aligning his reign with auspicious currents in economic history. He is like a general on a battlefield vainly striving to maintain an appearance of control amidst the chaos of sporadically exploding munitions.”

‘Nuff said.

The one problem with the supposed ‘anonymous’ critique is that the company chairman is photographed in front of a PowerPoint slide where the logo of the major accounting firm is clearly visible. Curious which firm it is? Turn to page 253 to find out.

John Berger

A Fortunate Man - coverde Botton’s book reminded me of another of my favorite authors. John Berger is a Marxist art historian best known for Ways of Seeingand the wonderful coming-of-age novel G.

His examination of the life of a country doctor A Fortunate Man is a great companion to The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

Berger examines the daily life of the country doctor with an art historian’s and sociologist’s perspective. The working life of one man is situated in the broader framework of the social relationships.

The book is full of insights like this on the structures of social intercourse:

The easiest – and sometimes the only possible – form of conversation is that which concerns or describes action: that is to say action considered as technique or procedure. It is then not the experience of the speakers which is discussed but the nature of an entirely exterior mechanism ot event – a motor-car engine, a football match, a draining system or the workings of some committee. Such subjects, which preclude anything indirectly personal, supply the content of most of the conversations being carried on by men over twenty-five at any given moment in England today. (in the case of the young, the force of their own appetites saves them from such depersonalization.)

Both authors show depth of meaning and discover truth when they focus on the everyday. As writers, we should always look deeply into the world around us.

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Breaking news that Alain de Botton has been appointed writer in residence at Heathrow Airport. He will be in and around Terminal 5 from August 18 – 25, 2009.

De Botton says BAA has given him complete editorial freedom and access to all areas as part of a one-book publishing deal. “One of the first things I said when they offered it to me was that I should be allowed to say what I want to say,” De Botton said. “If I see a cockroach coming out of the Carluccio’s here then I should be able to write about it. BAA used to be so guarded as an organisation, but they have thrown open their doors to me.”

The results of his week’s stint at Terminal Five will be published by Profile Books next month, with BAA distributing 10,000 copies free to passengers. The airport’s chief operating officer, Mike Brown, said: “Opening Heathrow to literary critique is a bold and adventurous step for us.”

A self-confessed transport obsessive, De Botton said he hoped to “lift the lid” on how an airport works. “I love transport, I love airplanes. It is the opposite of routine, even when it goes wrong,” he said. “There are not many industries where you find 20 people camped on your doorstep, like plane and trainspotters, to find out how it works. You will not find people doing that outside Tesco, saying ‘look at that chicken tikka arriving.’ People are fascinated by this and I share that fascination.”

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