Tuesday, August 11, 2009

All you who toil tonight

When Alain de Botton received a rather uncomplimentary review for this book in the New York Times, he went ballistic: “Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value... I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

Leave aside the qualities of the review itself, de Botton’s outburst suggests that in spite of the huge amounts of research he poured into this book — which purports to divulge the pleasures and sorrows we derive from the monotony that defines one-third of our lives — he clearly hasn’t understood the rules of his own work. You shout at the reviewer and you expose yourself to be the self-centred crybaby that you are.

Be that as it may, the book is, strictly speaking, undeserving of the viciousness that characterised the NYT review. De Botton, pop-philosopher extraordinaire, travels far and wide in his quest to offer “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.”

He covers ten professions broadly, as diverse as aviation and biscuit manufacture, and accompanies his analyses with photographs straight out of a coffee table book. In each case where it’s possible, he travels from source to sea, making this a book of reportage the likes of which one encounters in New Yorker and Granta—10,000-word pieces offering a personal take on an issue of importance.

De Botton’s smooth flow, which he demonstrated in such wide-ranging books as How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) and The Architecture of Happiness (2006), stands him in good stead here too. Chapters on staid subjects like “Logistics” gently hum with the glow of his language. Writing about warehouses that dot the English landscape, he says: “One looks up at their cathedral-like ceilings and finds, instead of angels, workaday, economical spans of steel punctuated by fluorescent strips, which guide the onlooker’s eyes back to rows of symmetrical shelving and the hurried motions of forklift trucks.”

He finds teeming ocean life—all dead, of course—in one section of the warehouse and this prompts him to find out how a tuna fished in Maldives makes it to a Northamptonshire warehouse in a matter of hours. As he journeys, this time from sea to source, he begins to realise that his leisurely project may not be so easy after all. Sea food exporters are reluctant to speak to an outsider, least of all a writer sneaking around for trouble. De Botton visits Male, the capital of Maldives, where he encounters silence until the country’s minister of fish makes a few phone calls and launches him on his trail. Really, the book is as much about pleasures and sorrows as the pulls and pressures of work.

One thing de Botton is especially attuned to is bursting bubbles. The chapter on “Rocket Science”, which term we associate with IQ scores of 140-plus, is a subtle exploration of the disillusionment of bright young minds who enter this field to make a lasting contribution to humanity’s body of knowledge. Yet, in de Botton’s chapter, we come across the painstaking work on a satellite which will merely beam signals for a children’s TV station in Japan. Routine, humdrum work—much too removed from intimations of glory.

De Botton tackles such brick-and-mortar topics in other chapters, notably “Transmission Engineering” and “Aviation”. But the real thrust of the book comes with “Career Counselling” which goes to the heart of de Botton’s Holy Grail: Is work meaningful?

The spotlight shifts to Robert Symons, a fifty-five-year-old psychotherapist who is less counsellor and more motivational speaker. The irony of Symons’ job is not lost on de Botton: to help, with an archaeologist’s precision, people to decide which job would suit them the best, only for them to subsequently realise that the world of work does not ease into such unguarded cheeriness. It is no picnic that can be chosen, altered and left at will.

In a roundabout way, this applies to de Botton’s project as well. Having set out to discover the details of work life as a detached outsider, he discovers that his posh accent and head-in-the-clouds ideas about real work are often at odds with the vast majority of toiling humanity. Hailing from an affluent background that allows him the luxury to go on such wild goose chases, de Botton’s rich language and slight concerns sit uncomfortably in a book about drudgery and endless hopelessness.

And yes, there is also the little matter of his reaction to unkind reviews.

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