Tuesday, 7 April 2009

So how uninteresting is this book exactly?

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.


Marion McCready said...

man alive, if I ever bring out a book I want you to review it, talk about comprehensive :)

would it shock you if I said I've never heard of monsieur de bottom or any of his books?

Rachel Fox said...

No it would make me love you all the more! Plus he is very much based in England and sounds SO English (though he is only really first generation English or something).

And did you mean to type Bottom or was that a slip?


Marion McCready said...

just couldn't resist, childish I know :)

Rachel Fox said...

We can't help it...we spend so much time with the under 10s (in your case probably even under 5s).

swiss said...

i didn't like the proust book - it just seemed a bit pointless - but i did like the art of travel.

and i wish i didn't know now that he hasn't actually had a job. much as he might want philosophy to be applicable for the masses (us)if he's never actually engaged with the thing he's talking about then it's probably going to be a bit of a waste of time.

plus, i don't live on the money!!!
if i had 200 million quid i wasn't much bothered about what happened to then i'd be doing a sight more than writing wishy washy books for the middle classes

Dave King said...

I am one who does not (did not) have firm views on this man. I am even less firm now than I was. (That is not meant as a criticism of your review, which has given me more than enough ammunition to come to a decision, but my gun seems to have jammed.)
I have read some of his earlier books and was not impressed, thought him rather gimmicky, something of a pseudo-intellectual. I guess I shall have to read the book or forever wonder about him.

Rachel Fox said...

Well I suppose he does have a job (writing, researching...) and he has worked quite a lot on that last book (probably much more than on the others). But I'm not going to defend him or anything!

It is an odd one, Swiss. No getting away from that! As I said I didn't plan to read this book...

Interested that you like the travel one though.

And the money...yes wouldn't you just want to do something HUGE with it. I mean look at Bill Gates...he's trying to do something with his, isn't he? Children, poverty, illness...so many places you could go with it...can't imagine what it's like to have that money (even me with my Laura Ashleys...not).


Rachel Fox said...

That last comment was an answer to Swiss (they're coming in quick!).

Now Dave - pseudo-intellectual? That's a real slap isn't it! I think he's tacking everyday matters in an intellectual way...tricky, as I say, and easy to criticise...but still worth trying all the same I would say.

I think.


Rachel Fox said...

And obviously I meant tackling...not tacking!

Rachel Fox said...

And I suppose he might be doing something good with the money and just not telling everybody about it.

Benefit of the doubt and all that.

swiss said...

i liked the art of travel before i read it - another radio 4 thing! and i think it's maybe better listened to than read - i may have a tape somewhere, if i ever master digitilation i'll make a cd for you.

i liked it because i got the impression that he realises that he's quite up himself, something that's dimmed in passing and now i just think he's up himself.

and yes, gates, a good example. give it all away!

Rachel Fox said...

There are bits in the new book where de B still gets humour from being a bit 'up himself'. And they are funny. But then where does a person go from there? Do they get down out of themselves and do something else..? You have to hope so...

I think.

swiss said...

slap him round his baldy head with a copy of down and out in paris and london i say. then send him off to work with some immigrants round about here doing the fruit farms. that'd sort out his ideas about work!

Rachel Fox said...

Indeed that is one way forward, comrade Swiss.

deemikay said...

Mission accepted! I shall write a nowhere-near-as-comprehensive report after have a sneaky swatch in Borders tomorrow lunchtime. :)

On the, well, subject of "conventionally dull subjects". Just today at work I was asked if I had any photographs of some houses... I asked what they wanted them for. For inclusion in an internal report. "Well, I can give you some dull, boring ones I took because we have nothing else."

Functional photos for a work-related function. Not arty photos to go "woah" at... And here's the thing, I'm rubbish at functional photos. It's one aspect of my work I'm no good at...


Halfway through writing this I went to Richard Baker's website and found images used in the book.

A quick look - they seem like photographs taken by a professional photographer on a paid job. They're work-a-day photos. Bread-and-butter photos. Exactly that kind I'm rubbish at. And also why I could never make money as a photographer.

They are also the kind of pictures photographers hate doing... they want to be Ansel Adams or Mapplethorpe or Steichen or Diane Arbus or blah blah blah...

To take it back to poems - the photographs are Pam Ayres (technically competent amd non-controversial, easily ignored), but the photographer wants to be Yeats.

This may, or may not, be an important part of the book...

I ramble... :)

green ink said...

A well thought out and thorough review - you're every writers dream reviewer, I'd say!

At uni, I went through a stage of "intellectualising" nearly everything - from Sex and the City to interactions with bank customers. I like the idea that everything has meaning behind it.

But having said that, I've not read A de B. Maybe I should.


Alain de Botton said...

This is an extraordinarily dense and fair review. Thank you so much.

There's very little to add - only a few comments on the comments. There seems to be an awful lot of fantasies about money going on. Very sadly, I don't have £200m that I don't touch. As my bank details are of real interest to the group, I'm worth about £5m + a house in London which I've accumulated through 15 years of writing, journalism and TV projects. I have 2 small children that my wife and I educate privately. My father sold a business he'd started for £200m - BUT he didn't own all his business, in fact, he was a minority shareholder and in the end pocketed something close to £20m. On his death, sudden, unexpected and will-less, it all went to his wife, my stepmother. So I have no trust fund, I am not worth £20m - and surprise surprise have to work very very hard to keep myself going. I could take it easy for a few years, but that's not my style.

As for being some poncey layout about rich boy, it's really hard to get a sense of someone from an author photo, but I can reassure you that I'm an ordinary not especially posh, not especially anything 40 year old who dresses in clothes from GAP, drives an 8 year old VW Golf, and spends most of his spare time at the indoor play center with children's snot over him.

Quite frankly, the reviews I've read of my work and the profiles make me want to a) emigrate b) kill myself c) never write again.

The injustice in them seems extraordinary. Of course, my book isn't perfect, but it's a decent shot at something not entirely revolting and yet from reading some of them, it's as though I'm Oscar Wilde who has killed innocent children and chuckles at the miseries of the world from his gold plated limousine.

As for this idea that I never worked, I'm Swiss for goodness sake. Do you know the sort of work ethic the average Swiss person has? Growing up in Switzerland, we all chuckle at how lazy the English are - for us, they're Mediterraneans without the charm. I outwork any of my critics, I'm sure. I've had about 8 weeks of holiday in the last 10 years. I've written nine books since the age of 23: excuse me, does anyone think that happens just by itself? I've made 25 hours of television? Does anyone know how long it takes, and how hard you have to work to do that? I run a TV production company, I helped to set up a school, it's 10.30am and I have 12 meetings today and will finally get to sleep past midnight. So please guys, don't lecture me on hard work, or money.

I understand it's hard to keep your projections in check, but please try. You don't know me, remember. You know someone with my name on a book + an author photo and some gossip in a paper. A human being is a very different thing.

But thanks again for that review

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Deemikay for your comments on the photos. I look forward to the results of your field trip.

And Green Ink...thanks for looking in. You might like his books, I think, especially as you're not British!

And A de B. Hello. Thanks for calling in. I have added a note re the £200m in the original post and apologise for quoting from newspapers that had got their numbers wrong. It very much seemed from the articles that this info about money was accepted information and that you were fine with it. I wouldn't have mentioned it but for the fact that if it were true it does have connotations for attitudes to paid work. I wouldn't have mentioned it in a article about a book about love or architecture or Proust I don't think.

Commenters here are Scottish, English, North American, Canadian, Australian...just thought I should add that in.

I guess Swiss makes the harshest comments...funny because I have a sneaking suspicion you would get on in real life! Just a suspicion, mind. He's a passionate kind of guy...lots of thoughts on work...could have been a good interview for the book. Personally I thought Dave's 'pseudo-intellectual' was the harshest blow (and he's normally so lovely too!). We all have our moments...

I think all this does bring up the problem of public image. Anyone who gets a lot of coverage (and you get LOADS!) is bound to get positive and negative reactions...and strong ones often. At one point in my life I thought I wanted to be widely known as a writer but the older I get the more I see the down side of success with writing too (other writers will pick you to pieces...). Maybe just living quietly here is not so bad after all.

p.s. I did emigrate...from England anyway...and can highly recommend it. As for killing yourself...as people never tire of saying to me (daughter of a suicide)...think of the children. They fuck you up your mum and dad...and all that.


Marion McCready said...

oh no, now I really am embarrased at my childishness!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes...you never know who's reading...


Susan at Stony River said...

Rachel, a big thank you for this one.

I saw this book reviewed in the Irish Tribune/Indo/Times or something, not sure--and at the time, I didn't even read the review. I thought, 'a book about work? Ha!' If I touched it (I thought) I'd have a rash. Blaaah.

I'd never heard of Alain de Botton, either. We have neither TV nor radio and we're soooo rural: I had no idea who he was.

After reading your take on the book, I thought it might be more interesting than I'd assumed; perhaps, maybe, someday, IF I saw it in the library, ok, I'd poke throught it.

Then Himself appeared in the comments--- I *like* this man! And had to laugh at his emigrate/kill myself/never write again; any writer could sympathise with that I think. So now I might even touch that book in a bookstore. I think I'll have a look.

And ├ęcoute, having spent my younger years in la Suisse Romande of course has nothing to do with liking him, hein? LOL

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Susan. You're a well-travelled woman, aren't you? So much for a quiet book review this week though.

All a bit manic here too with the girl still ill and me not much better and we're meant to be heading south...why is it always when you have to go away that everyone gets ill! My head is banging!!


deemikay said...

I regret to inform you that in my mad dash to Borders at lunchtime I couldn't see the book! Nor did they have it in WH Smiths! (My mad dash didn't allow a trip to Waterstones...)

I shall attempt again tomorrow.

Interesting question, though, is where does this book get put in the book shop? In my mad-dash-wanderings in WH Smiths today I discovered they have a section called "Tragic Life Stories". How depressing...

Rachel Fox said...

At this stage in Borders I would expect the de B book to be fairly near the front of the shop. But I might be wrong. Is that Glasgow centre shop you're in? I went in once.....huge! And that gallery cafe thing.

As for the Tragic Life Stories...big business, monster business. They're quite addictive (so I hear from the odd friend who reads them).


deemikay said...

That's where I thought it would be as well... on the new releases wall.

It is a giant shop... and has a lovely big 20/25 feet of poetry section. And comfy chairs. And the cafe is great for staring down at the people below and daydreaming... and I work less than 5 minutes from it. :)

Rachel Fox said...

p.s. I can't believe I didn't mention the Irish in the list of commenter nationalities further up! Some of my finest visitors.
Sorry folks.
And of course there's Roxana who is...Romanian I think...


Art Durkee said...

i think in this review you've made some profound comments not just on Mr. A de B, but on public intellectuals in general, and their role (often self-appointed) in our society—or lack thereof, precisely because one wonders if poets don't actually contribute more, in their "art is useless but can be revolutionary" way.

That last quoted bit is a paraphrase from Octavio Paz, BTW, who was a public intellectual, critic, and poet of the highest caliber (speaking of Dave's guns) in the latter half of the 20th C. I usually tell poet/critics to read Paz, and Conrad Aiken, if they really want to learn how to write criticism well.

I love the long length that you went to in this review, and that in the end, your response is still equivocal. That says so much to me about the book under review that it becomes a very, very useful review. (More reviewers ought to emulate you with this kind of review writing!) And my response to de Botton's writings probably match yours rather closely—equivocal, not always convinced, but willing to listen—which makes this review very useful to me indeed.

Anyway, regarding being a public intellectual: It often is a thankless and unrewarding task. I sympathize with the desire to think about life and its many meanings that lies behind the urge. Since I have a couple of blogs that people do actually seem to read, I suppose in my own (very!) small way I too am a public intellectual—albeit not a well-known, oft-published one that the media gets all lathered about with each publication. It's the economics of scale at work: I am a smaller target, because I've a smaller readership. Actually, I'm content with it to be that way. (Not that I lack ambition as a writer, but rather that I enjoy being a small target rather than a large one.) Thinking things through while talking out loud is always fun, if risky, and prone to sometimes missing the point. It can indeed be hard work, with a lot of effort put into it, rewarded or otherwise. But hard work has never been a guarantee of success, or even of getting it right, no matter what the job was.

I have a special interest in travel writing, especially creative non-fiction built around experiences had while traveling. Bryson would not be near the top of my list of favorite travel writers, but he's on the list regardless.

And the blogosphere itself has changed what a public intellectual is, or can be. I'm thinking of Mark Vernon's excellent blog, for one; I view him as public intellectual of high caliber. The instant response you can get on a blog can lead to constructive dialogue as well as fact-checking or name-calling; those are all common options. The point is, however, that it's a DIALOGUE. A book published by a public intellectual has traditionally been a monologue, responded to perhaps in reviews such as yours here does, but overall, he who wrote the published tome has traditionally had the louder voice.

Now that's all changing. Your review, and its responses, are proof of that trend, right here, right now. I applaud every aspect of that.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Art for this full reply. I agree with you about dialogue...I would have stopped this particular activity ages ago without the interaction and responses and triggers that blogging has thrown up. I don't really know what I expected but, especially for those of us in small towns or out of the way places, blogging allows us to have a wide and varied circle of folk to discuss and learn (and have a laugh) with (as well as our flesh and blood nearby friends too of course!).

And I could have asked you about photos too (doh!)...and Roxana. I suppose I knew DMCK worked in a city and would be able to go and see the book easily (or at least I thought so!).

You should look at each other's photos - much talent around.


Richard Baker said...

Hello Rachel,

I am the mysterious Richard Baker who worked on Alain’s book as a 'photographer in tow' (as the blurb says). I also stumbled upon this blog and your curious comments.

So I'm slightly alarmed .. In all my years as a photographer, I have never been likened to Pam Ayres, nor Yeats! though you may be right - I know who I'd rather emulate in a pretentious sort of way.

I hope you won’t mind me sharing an insight or two. Yes, I am a jobbing photographer and as such, I am paid to produce photography for whichever client happens to call and brief me strictly according to the job in hand.

For me to receive a call by a writer whom I had long admired was, to put it mildly, a very exciting moment though I have to admit I did stalk him for a few weeks. He also became a client who wanted a particular aesthetic to the pictures for his next book - something that complimented the tone for ideas that were still locked in his head and so we performed a little osmosis and hatched the plot that became The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

In essence, I delivered the imagery he wanted but I was also left to interpret his own inspiring thoughts that came to me as long e-mails or scraps of A4 and either on my own or in many cases we travelled together over a 2-year period. I would photograph and send him low-res which either interested him and led to him elaborating on that theme or it was dropped and we moved on. One entire chapter about the world of couturier Margaret Howell was taken out too. Often I sat at my Mac researching and arranging for him though the sands were forever shifting.

So it was probably (maybe with the exception of my own book) the most rewarding and pleasurable job I’ve done so I heartily dispute that I, or other photographers hate doing this sort of thing because I know that several mates would have bitten Alain’s hand to work with him. I therefore feel tremendously lucky to have been asked and would do so again at a drop of a hat! The credit right at the back? Well .. I’m not that sore about it. The cover and the b+w repro? .. now that’s a different story!

If I haven’t bored you completely and if you forgive me plugging my own blog, I have written about my experiences at: http://englandspastures.wordpress.com/2009/04/01/song-for-occupations/

Best wishes Rachel and thanks for the mention,


Rachel Fox said...

Hello Richard!
Now I just feel overwhelmed by visitors! It's a nice feeling though. Why write if not to be read, eh?

I asked other visitors to comment on the photo side of things because it is not a subject I know a lot about. I mean... I like photos but I have no technical knowledge whatsoever (for example when you talk about an issue with the b&w repro...I don't really know what you might be talking about there...not really...I am fairly technophobe on most subjects...even poetry sometimes). But anyway...my correspondent in the comments was not being completely serious, I suspect. He writes poetry too...and we're all a bit odd... so don't take it to much to heart! It could be worse...you could have journalists telling half the world that you have millions of pounds that you don't possess!

Of course I would love to hear the story of the front cover...writers are very nosy (well, I am). I'll pop to your blog and see if it's on there anywhere!

It must have been a great project to work on all the same. Half of me thought it should have been coffee table book size...half of me thought 'no, that would be really wrong for the subject matter'!


deemikay said...

Eek... :/

A message for the Mysterious Richard Baker:

I'll confess straightaway that I still haven't been able to get my hands on the book! So my knowledge of the pictures is based on nothing more than a quick glance through your site.

Any one who knows me will know that I didn't mean the Pam Ayres comment as an insult. I was just trying to draw a distinction between one sort of photograph and another ("commercial versus art" if you'd rather... not that there has to be a competition, of course.)

From your description of the job itself I'd say it sounds a dream!

My experience of professional photographers (like professional musicians) is that they often go through the motions, have-to-pay-the-bills. Any I've had experience of through my job always seem to be wanting to do something else. Most photographers are, I'd imagine, like session musicians - not playing the music they want to.

But it was wrong of me to stereotype in that way and I apologise for doing so.

Incidentally, my Ayres/Yeats comment went through a thousand combinations of poets and they were the two I ended up with before I got annoyed with myself! I think it was Auden and Eliot to begin with... :)

(Oh and interesting blog... I'll return!)

Rachel Fox said...

And now we're all friends. That's good.


Richard Baker said...

Hi Rachel and Deemikay,

I appreciate the replies and therefore all is forgiven on the Pam Ayres front.

All harmless in the blogosphere.

About the cover, I'll keep that close to my chest if you don't mind, suffice to say that we mocked up several covers of our own which is quite normal.

So you were probably on the right track though when you suggested it was a marketing decision, especially if you look at Alain's past books. And about the final title .. look at the Whitman poem title and you might imagine what the book was originally called.

There's a Penguin pattern for Alain's covers and titles. Right?

I'll come back here too from time to time.



Rachel Fox said...

Ah marketing...how glad I am that I left that 'career' long before it ate me up and spat me out. There's a reason people drink so much in those 'professions'...dulls the pain of slow brain-death.

People in marketing often have long and detailed explanations for their decisions (like front covers?) but most of them are...well...just fluff... but generally the fluff gets dressed up with research (and I worked in the research bit...nonsense times nonsense a lot of the time...). What do people really want? They want stuff they like and that is useful to them and most of all not to be thought of as morons, statistics, ABC1s or whatever. Personally if I even feel a sniff of a marketing decision it makes me less likely to buy something (not more). But then I am (as the great Bill Hicks would have said)...fairly representative of the anti-marketing dollar. Or pound...but you get the idea.

De Botton has enough of a name now that fans of his would buy his books if they came out in brown paper bags or something. In fact, because that would be different (and I bet his fans, possibly with reason, like to think of themselves as different) they would probably be more likely to buy them that way. Maybe I should call the marketing dept. to discuss the idea...(joke!).

And now I'm going to bed! Maybe I'll dream that my book is on the Waterstones 3 for 2 table...but I doubt it.


tertia trust said...

For God's sake Alain. You are not an average middle class 40 year old. You are sending your children to private school: that is not average. You are worth 5m + a house in a very nice part of London: that is not average. Your father was super-rich: that is not average. You went to Cambridge: that is not average. And I beleive you also went to private school yourself: THAT is not average.

If you really think that you have achieved all you have achieved (not inconsiderable, granted) by coming from an average middle-class background, then you really are in a weak position to understanding the work place for the 'average' working person today.

It's a damn shame all your education didn't make you a little wiser, too.

End of story. Now go emigrate and while you're there, try growing up and sending your kids to state school.

Rachel Fox said...

Interesting new comment on this old post!

I notice there has been more hoo-ha over this book (de Botton complaining about another review, more recently) and it does make you wonder why he didn't see that kind of review coming. Sometimes we can be clever about other things but very stupid about ourselves...certainly I've proved that true myself many times!