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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work [Book Review]

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deBotton-51+ENmmzz4L__SS500_Alain de Botton (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, (NY: Pantheon Books, 2009)) is the guy you want on your next trip. He sees things the rest of us pass over as invisible: the electrical pylons running zig zag across the countryside, the huge grey warehouses plunked into industrial areas, the airplane junkyard in the California desert. And then he does one better by somehow inviting himself in to hear about the work and workers who made or use these invisible objects. All this curiosity is in the service of the question: What is it people really do all day with their time? And could I really understand even if they told me?

De Botton reveals the glories of tuna, from the Indian ocean to a grocer and table at home in London; the secrets of shipping (ships, warehouses, labyrinthine but well-timed world-wide movement); biscuit (cookie) production, rocket science, accountancy, painting and other things. Each a fascinating journey into the work practices and one psyche of the worker and artist.

De Botton seems to understand much, especially about the joy of finding meaningful work and the despair of having meaning sucked away. Where solitary baking for oneself or one’s family can be a joy, when the process is set on an assembly line with each stop isolated and optimized for the biscuit factory floor, when responsibility has been removed from each individual worker, it is up to the bosses and managers to re-inject purpose back into the work. Much like slipping niacin and riboflavin back into the stripped- down biscuit recipe.

Always entertaining, de Botton doesn’t mind climbing up on his soapbox from time to time to deliver mini-sermons about the nature of work. De Botton’s “School of Life” espouses the return of the secular sermon, so it is not surprising The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work does not mention the Creator’s involvement in our work. That’s too bad, because there is much to commend the (Biblical) notions that we were made to work, that when our work is harnessed to serve others (versus fulfilling our demand for meaning) we can find moments of transcendence. Plus the added bonus of the truth of the Biblical notion. De Botton does, however, offer robust hints about our current obsession with finding meaningful work. Namely, we add to the pressure when we expect our work to fulfill us. Another criticism may be the occasional flights of fancy de Botton takes as he verbalizes what may or may not be occurring in the minds of these workers.

A very entertaining read.  Highly recommended.


Written by kirkistan

August 3, 2009 at 3:00 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] August 3, 2009 · Leave a Comment Worth reading. […]

  2. Good review – thanks for this. I’m a big fan of his – The Art of Travel is fantastic book. Probably my favorite of his work.

    Scott Berkun

    August 15, 2009 at 12:40 am

  3. […] recent conversation turned to the author Alain de Botton, who I described as a philosopher but then back pedaled. We allowed he was certainly a popularizer. […]

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