The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009) by Alain de Botton is a fine remonstration on the world of work and employment. There are 10 chapters in which the working lives of a number of people and companies that ship cargo, fish, make biscuits, counsel people on careers, launch satellites, paint, provide electrical power, do accountancy, start small companies and operate and manufacture aircraft.
Alain de Botton is a fortunate individual. He is brilliant, he has a Master’s in Philosophy from King’s College London and began a PhD at Harvard but gave it up to write his philosophical books which have done very, very well. He’s a very good writer. He also has a trust fund of 200 M GBP which he doesn’t even have to dip into because of the success of his books. This is relevant because it gives de Botton a different view to most of us of the world of work.
The book is admirable in that looks at the way in which it looks at the myriad of occupations and activities that people perform to allow us to live in the modern world. In the chapter on Logistics de Botton looks at just how it is that a fish is caught in the Indian Ocean and winds up within 52 hours being eaten by people in the UK. He gives a matter a fact description to the process that allows you to reflect on just how amazing the modern world is. How it is that actions of people all over the world are coordinated without a master plan to provide such remarkable service to regular folk.
de Botton is a fine writer. His writer is crisp, clear and clever. He writes like Julian Barnes or Evelyn Waugh but instead of writing fiction chooses to write entertaining books about the world that we live in. This is the first of his books that I’ve read but it won’t be the last. In the book he doesn’t give great recommendations for how we should live our lives. Instead he gives us a view of how people do live theirs that makes us reflect on the world and what people do in it. He respects what people do but also jests with the reader.
The chapter on the launch of Arianne Rocket looks at how amazing technology and amazing power is controlled by extremely calm and professional engineers. de Botton states how anonymous the business of performing such amazing works is. How the people involved are selfless to quite a degree. He also points out the strangeness of the exercise where such resources are dedicated to such a feat whose final goal is to launch a TV satellite to provide the citizens of Japan with frivolous entertainment.
de Botton rounds the book out with chapters on Accountancy, Entrepreneurship and Aviation. The accountancy chapter looks at a large firm in London. You can see that de Botton has taken a certain view of accountants. He knows that a lot of them are fairly bright but rarely brilliant and that the successful ones are very hard working. He looks at them as disregarding the ‘higher’ things in life such as reflecting on life’s purpose which is a little unfair. He doesn’t sit down and talk to any of them to see how they really view their occupations in the vast scheme of things. As someone who has made it doing something very, very few of us could he looks at offices as strange places.
The chapter on aviation looks at the Paris air show and the goings on there, the minutiae of the salesmen selling tubes for aircraft and small items that are, again combined to create such amazing beasts. It concludes by looking at an aircraft graveyard that provides a place for de Botton to reflect on the path from creation to destruction of the things that we create. Here he provides a brief summation of the book and of his views of how we use work to fill our days and stop endless reflection of how death is coming and how finite our lives are. But at the same time he is cleverly giving us pause to think about exactly those issues.
A fine read.