I guess those dancing posts will have to wait because look...there is work to do...or work to think about anyway...or to be precise a book about work to think about (come on, girl, spit it out...). Work (as in paid work) is not exactly my favourite subject (my 'career' has been...much-broken and twisted) but it is today's topic here at the Crazy Diamond and, now I come to think about it, I have written about it, from another angle, back in January of this year too. So maybe it is my subject...maybe everything is. Nowhere is safe...
But, the book! Let's get to the book! First let me just say that how you approach this meandering post probably depends, to an extent, on what you already think of the book's author one Alain de Botton. Here he is (photograph by Charlotte de Botton):
We tend to form fairly clear opinions of famous people (don't we?) and de Botton is certainly something like famous (what might we call him...the thinking person's Jeremy Clarkson? No, that would be silly...). Some of you might consider de Botton (a) interesting (and maybe even charming) and if you do it's likely that you will enjoy at least some of his new book about work. Others amongst you may feel less flattering adjectives are required for this man, one of the UK's better-known intellectuals, and I guess you (b) people will probably avoid this book at all costs anyway. But should you? Is it worth a read? Somewhere in all that lies below I will try to help you decide...but in the end of course it's up to you. Read it or don't read it...deal or no deal...
As I said not long back, I like de Botton generally speaking (well, certainly more than I like Clarkson...as far as public figures go). I've never met either of them in person but I like the de Botton that we meet quite regularly via our busy media in the UK. I like his approach and what he says in interviews (here's a recent one by Lynn Barber from the Observer). Perhaps most importantly (seeing as he's writer) I like de Botton's writing (some humour, lots of trying to be clever and open and honest and readable and challenging all at the same time ). My favourite book of his so far is probably 'How Proust can change your life'...just because I'm generally more interested in literature (of all kinds) than I am in some of his other topics like, say, architecture or (reading about) love. 'Status Anxiety' (the TV programme), with its thoughts on how we struggle in the neverending, often unspoken competition with each other, I absolutely loved and agreed with hugely (so much so I felt I didn't need to go and read the book...there's only so much reading time in one person's life after all). The only one I haven't gone near yet is 'The Art of Travel'...but that's another whole set of posts.
Anyway de Botton's new book, 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work', what of it, I hear you cry! I'd seen that it was around (how could you not – reviews and interviews are everywhere) but it's a hardback just now and it's about work so it wasn't something I was planning to read exactly. I've had plenty of crappy jobs (and no doubt I'll end up with more at some other point in my life) so my original thought was the admittedly fairly lengthy 'why on earth would I want to read about that right now when I'm temporarily free from the whole wage slave thing thanks to complicated domestic arrangements that are really none of anyone else's business'? It seemed like a reasonable standpoint but then life intervened and I ended up with a copy of the book anyway (and a bit of a guilt complex about dismissing it out of hand...something I say I never do...). So, there I was...with a job to do after all - read the book and have something to say about it. So I read the book. And I thought about it. And I'm still thinking.
As already mentioned De Botton always gets heaps of press coverage (why is that exactly?) so I read some reviews of the new book too. There's a quite brutal one by Naomi Wolf here (and she likes him – yikes!) and a more favourable one here but you can see that there is going to be a fair bit of mickey-taking going on around this latest project of de Botton's. Why is that, you ask. Well, because he's an easy target in this case. This is after all a book about work (all the different types of paid work that make up our modern world) written by a man who (according to many sources including yet another interview in the 'Independent' here) has “a trust fund of £200m” but “doesn't use the money, preferring to live by his writing” [STOP PRESS - please see corrections on this matter from A de B in the comments. Was that me believing what I read in the British press again? Now I remember why I don't get a regular newspaper myself!]. Pause. Makes you wonder what does happen to all that money then, doesn't it? Anyway, it is always going to be hard in this information age (when everyone knows everything about everybody) to take words of wisdom about labour from someone in such an unusual position (no matter how wise those words might manage to be). Don't you think? The subject of work and pay affects us all so differently (any of you not need to touch your £200m trust funds? I know I don't...) but whatever our situation we, naturally, tend to feel quite strongly about this kind of...extreme situation. Journalists can be particularly bitter and twisted (so often the bridesmaids...even with a book deal...) and you can see how some of these issues might make it through into reviews. You can see how the subtext might easily become “rich tosser, never known he's born, what the hell does he know about work...”. Sometimes that text might not even be so sub.
But let's put all of that aside for now and think about the book (which de Botton calls his attempt at 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”...and I hear a few of you, not least my beloved, drifting away from me right there...). I fear too that my rambling may get out of control today so seeing as I linked to a Q & A with de Botton last time here are some Q & A of my own to keep things under control. What might you like to know about this book, do you think?
Question 1 - Is this book worth reading?
Yes. I'd have to say... yes. It might annoy you (along the “rich, posh tosser” lines) now and again but that doesn't mean it isn't interesting and, quite simply, worth the time and effort it takes to read (plus I have known lots of rich, posh tossers in my time and, believe me, he is small fry in that category). For a start 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work' did make me laugh and make me think and those two are always worth the time spent, aren't they? It's very varied and detailed and quite ambitious and all of those things I like – in general and in here. It had all sorts of effects on me that I wasn't expecting too - for example, it brought back some memories about particular crap jobs from my own past. There is a whole chapter on United Biscuits (in particular the brand McVities Moments) and as I worked as a Research & Planning Executive for the company that did advertising for Fox's Biscuits many moons ago all the stuff about the brand development of a biscuit (the focus groups and so on) was frighteningly real. I led those focus groups! I talked for endless hours about crunchiness, sweetness, how that biscuit might make you feel (and so on and so on...). It was weird to think about it all again (and with de Botton as a sort of alien onlooker, as it were) but not unpleasant in its way. Doing that job drove me quite crazy and whilst I have some ideas about that myself...de Botton's input (even at this late stage) is neither useless nor unwelcome (and now one is starting to write like him, isn't one?).
But yes...for many reasons, and even considering all its potentially infuriating moments, I would say this book is worth reading. The hardback is costly though...so for those of you without Trust Funds you could easily wait for the paperback...or get it out from the library (did I mention I love libraries...the more public the better...).
Question 2 – how much can de Botton be accused of stating the bleeding obvious?
This is something, I believe, this author has been criticised for before...and you can see why. I did even write in my notes at one point 'stating the bleeding obvious' (regarding his comment about there not being guidebooks for the working dock areas of London but only for the more stereotypical or accepted tourist destinations). But then you think about it a little and... that is kind of his point, I think, that it is obvious. We're meant to start wondering about why it's obvious, aren't we? We're meant to ask ourselves why take such-and-such for granted (in our current world at least)? The bleeding-obvious points are not about stupidity they are about observation, I think, and that's not such a bad thing, is it? Poems do it all the time after all, don't they – try to get readers to look at something from a different angle? Some poems anyway.
Question 3 - There are a lot of photos in this book (it is even described as “a photo reportage”) – are the pictures any good?
There are a lot of photos...mostly by a man called Richard Baker (though his name is in very small type in the book and he doesn't seem to be mentioned much in the reviews I've seen either). To be honest the photos are a bit small as presented in the book and then, of course, they are rather dull. I know they're meant to be dull (I get that!)...or at least I know they're meant to be ordinary (and I get that too) - in fact possibly my favourite chapter in the book is the one about electricity pylons (really? Yes really) and part of the whole point of that chapter is to emphasise how something dull to one observer can be absolutely fascinating and vital to another (again bleeding obvious but you'd be surprised how often people choose to forget it!). I might even say it's quite daring to have so many photos of so many conventionally dull subjects (biscuit warehouses, workstations etc.) except I note they didn't use one for the front cover (fairly annoying shot of blonde staring out of window instead...cop-out thought up by marketing department maybe...). Still, daring or not...I'm not sure there are many images in the book that you would want to look at again and again even so... especially when they're this size. It's a tricky one. McKelvie – you're a good photographer (he really is)...go look at it 'The Pleasures...' in a bookshop and tell us what you think of the images. Think of it as a secret assignment or something.
Question 4 - Is the book poetic in any sense?
Apparently the author wanted this book to be “a series of poetic journeys through the modern landscape”. So... is it? Yes, I would say so...now and then...though some of the journeys get a bit overshadowed by other things that are going on in the writing. A lot of the time, for example, it is hard to make out any potential poetic moments because you are distracted by the somewhat overbearing style that makes the book read a bit like the diary of an English intellectual from a bygone era as he wanders around a branch of Asda ('one might choose the individual Chinese ready meal tonight but, on the other hand, one might have feasted sufficiently on Oriental fare already this week '* and so on). I don't mind all these bits of the book (and there are loads) but whatever they are they're not particularly poetic (not for me anyway). They are just the way he writes, I suppose. Reviewers, of course, are mentioning them aplenty (as you might expect...lots of easy laughs at this expense...posh philosopher meets ordinary people shock...de Botton writes about Skips shock! Jesus, he even goes to Middlesbrough** at one point!) but somehow I don't mind all the 'intense academic meets everyday life' bits because for me they are an important part of the book - the meeting of old and new, the knit of high and low brow, the meld of mix and match. It's not surprising that I like these features perhaps (I did once write a story featuring Dostoevsky's ghost in Tesco...see the 1 o'clock story on usual website) and also, as I said, I am well-disposed towards the author so in the end I find de Botton's otherworldliness...bearable, sometimes endearing, above all honest (and he is from another world...believe me, I've visited it now and again). He knows what he is too – a man who has done little (so far) but write and think (and succeed) and in a Scotsman interview he says of the subject of work “I've tried to use my naivety to my advantage”. Largely I think he succeeds in this too but it does mean that the book reads, now and again, like the beautiful homework of an expensively-educated, frighteningly clever, exceedingly well-behaved small boy on the subject 'what other people do all day' (and that is kind of what it is). It would be so easy to have a go (SO easy!) but I think he really is interested in some kind of public good and how can that be held against him?
I seem to be losing my thread...ah yes - back to poetry! I think there are points in this book where the author gets past the quaint goodness-me-why-is-this-warehouse-so-ugly and writes some really lovely sentences (they are in there – you just have to work at it a bit). There's the odd overwrite but mostly I'd say he chooses his words precisely and carefully (and from a huge vocabulary!) and now and then he can dazzle a little and surprise the reader too. There is emotive writing - wonder at the satellite launch, beauty and care in the chapter on painting (painting pictures...not toilet walls, in case you wondered), delicate thoughts on the sleeping dreams of an accountant in chapter 8 (quite a lot of 'Brave New World' in the accountancy chapter too, methinks). There is also gentleness in the biscuit factory (whatever other reviewers say) and thoughtfulness at the end of the (dead) tuna's long journey from the Indian Ocean to the Bristol tea table. He makes good use of artistic and poetic references (they could be pretentious, some of them, but I don't think they are) and there is also an awful lot of setting the present in a wider historical context (de Botton's first degree was history and he's very good at that kind of detail too). So, overall, I would say it's not all poetic (and why should it be?) but it has its moments...quite a few of them and I think he tries really hard to make this a well-written book in many different ways (and if you remember trying is one of my favourite things).
Question 5 - Did I learn anything from reading this book?
Now...another question...do you read philosophy books to learn... or just to think? I'm not sure and perhaps that's one reason I never stuck to philosophy (despite my mother's regular insistence that it would be a more valid pursuit than poetry!). De Botton is known as a philosopher (though he prefers the word 'essayist', according to one interview) and I think partly I read his books to enjoy experiencing a mind at work and, I suppose, to help mine continue its own rambling development (does that sound right?). Saying that, his books do have their no-question-about-it educational moments too and this one perhaps more than most (it could almost be a college textbook in places though it gets a bit maudlin and off topic now and again and students really don't need any help on that score). He visits a lot of different workplaces (from accountancy firms to fish packing facilities, from aviation fairs to cheap and not-so-cheerful motels) and he passes on a lot of factual details from each one so you'd be a fool if you didn't pick up some new information somewhere along the way. There are intelligent observations on modern life of all sorts too and, in some ways, this book is not completely dissimilar to the very popular and mildly educational Bill Bryson travel books (lots of detail of local characters, places, contrasts and comparisons) - except this time Bill is...well, not really Bill at all... and he's not allowed to go to ANY of the traditional tourist destinations (in fact think 'Bill Bryson meets Jeremy Irons on his way to an international nylons exhibition in Frankfurt***'... and you might be just about there).
Overall what I would say this book does well is that it tries (and to a good extent succeeds) to give a whole picture of our international system of strange survival (exactly what it takes to get the food on our tables, the picture on our TV screens, the people sat at tables at our careers fairs etc.). He paints (or photographs...) the picture without lecturing on the whole (far more questions than answers, more observations than commands) and that's quite a relief in this age of the ubiquitous tell-you-how-to-live manual. This offering is, like all de Botton's books in a way, more about how to think about how to live...and that's no bad thing. What's unusual about his books, considering all the big media splash on each arrival, is that they are surprisingly subtle. It's a fairly mixed blessing, all the hype, I imagine...
Question 6 – While we're on the subject, are his books overhyped?
Well, not compared to Jordan/Katie Price's books or Geri Halliwell's books or Jamie Oliver's books they're not, no. They may get a lot more attention than many other books we can all think of that deserve more coverage but that's not really de Botton's fault as such (is it?). All he has done is (fairly effortlessly, I suspect) do what Research & Planning executives talk about all the time – he has found a niche that no-one else was filling. Who else writes in English about modern life in quite the way that A de B does? There is Will Self's journalism (which I really like and in some ways it is not completely dissimilar...bit grubbier, bit more random), the 'Affluenza' of Oliver James (though he is a psychologist...someone trying to fix us...), the more political Naomi Klein but de Botton is different to all of these. He is just a wandering intellectual, pondering life's many questions in ways most of us can understand (more or less). I think he makes important contributions. I can see why the book section editors can't resist him...and his books.
Question 7 – One of the reviews said something about this being the wrong book for the wrong man (as in this was not a subject that suited de Botton)...do you agree?
I can see why a reviewer might say that and there are awkward moments in the book (as reviewers have highlighted) where de Botton's manner and language do clash horribly with what you might call ordinary people's lives. That doesn't mean however that some of what he is saying in those moments is not true...it's just uncomfortable to witness. So why is that? Because it's not often, even in this day and age, that we witness people really mixing across class/education/background boundaries - mostly we still like to keep people in their separate boxes if we can (uneducated people over there, middle management here, famous people behind the VIP signs, privileged intellectuals to the left a bit...). As if challenging this, one of the tasks this book sets itself is to look at many, many different kinds of paid work and to ask as many different kinds of questions about all these as possible and it's perhaps here that the author's naivete falls down. Maybe he didn't quite realise what a huge, doomed-to-at-least-some-failure project this really could be (the world out there is huge, Alain, isn't it? Why do you think so many of us hide in here...). But still, I don't hold that failure against him. Nobody's perfect. So maybe there are painful moments now and again and maybe the content is more suited to a series of books rather than a series of essays (not that I'm suggesting he write them...) and maybe it was all just a pie-in-the-sky idea (worthy of some of chapter 9's entrepreneurs...) but, you know, he had a go, he tried something new (or something old in a new way at least). At the end of the book de Botton sounds tired ('bad day, dear?') and whilst he jokes to Lynn Barber about having a “nervous breakdown” during one of the field trips in the US I have to say there was certainly something nervous and possibly mid-life crisissy going on in the prose now and then (much talk of his not-long-deceased father, much inability to compute in different situations, much melancholy). For this and many reasons I don't think he makes a bad job of this giant project**** overall. And now let's end this session on a sentence (from the accountancy chapter) to give you a taste of it:
“She has a business card which she hands over in meetings and which tells other people – and, more meaningfully perhaps, reminds her – that she is a Business Unit Senior Manager, rather than a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe.”
Quite beautiful wouldn't you say? No? Anyway...if you're still there... you just might like this song from the 1980s (couldn't embed it – shame).
Time for me to clock out now.
*This is not a real quote from the book by the way.
**Where I spent a good part of my teenage time, for those of you who don't know this.
***I once had a job interpreting at just such an exhibition (working for a company who worked for ICI Fibres). There was a lot of drinking in the evenings, I can tell you that much.
****Though can I just say I hate the line about picking up a one-legged person by mistake on page 312? Almost as bad as being flippant about baldness I'd say.
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