Book Review

Work: the Measure of Our Lives

The Pleasures of Work
de Botton also draws our attention to a critical loss of consciousness that is intensifying in our post industrial age, an era of apparently limitlessly available information in which we know virtually nothing about how the goods we consume in such insatiable quantities are produced, or who produces them, or how they are transported to us.

Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Hamish Hamilton 2009 $45.00. ISBN: 0241143535

Just as work can be demanding and tedious, so can a number of the books and research papers that focus upon that apparently unavoidable burden of our lives. Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is never dull. Thoughtful and elegantly written, and accompanied by powerful and often poetic images from photographer Richard Baker, de Botton leads the reader through a reflection on a range of professions to illustrate the dilemma at the heart of the modern daily grind: that it is not only a function we must perform, but a calling, a task that we should enjoy, but often do not.

As he argues, ‘All societies have had work at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative.' This expectation shapes not only how we fill the vast number of our waking hours, but also our sense of worth in our own eyes, and the eyes of others: ‘Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gates of paid employment.'

Yet many of us are fated to pursue careers chosen at an immature age, to persist in jobs out of need rather than desire, or are led by the fatuous slogans of human resource management to believe that we can achieve anything if only we try harder, when of course the truth is that we are likely to achieve little of the kind. Nonetheless, as ‘meaning-focused animals' we often seek work that seems to us to possess some inherent value, or that ‘allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.'

There are some who realise an elusive balance of work and pleasure. de Botton describes the hard-won contentment of a visual artist, whose moment of transforming on canvas ‘a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work emanating from his being', is nonetheless beset by the ordinary frailties of his daily life. Then there are the less successful. de Botton warmly and humorously describes his attendance at a fair designed to link small business with potential investors, held annually in a rented hangar in northern England. These optimistic and often naïve entrepreneurs hover on the fringe of the business world, trying to break through with that big new product, that great new idea they have sweated blood and money over.

Rather more poignantly, de Botton spends some time in the home based business of a struggling career counsellor, striving unsuccessfully to get his careers advice manuscript published, and trying to help others fulfil Nietzsche's dictum from a damp room in a narrow terrace: ‘help us to become who we are.' The counsellor becomes part of the advice machinery attempting to manage the burden we have placed upon ourselves, or have foist upon us by employers – that work should be fulfilling as well as financially rewarding, and if it is not, then that is a failing that reflects poorly upon us.

de Botton also draws our attention to a critical loss of consciousness that is intensifying in our post industrial age, an era of apparently limitlessly available information in which we know virtually nothing about how the goods we consume in such insatiable quantities are produced, or who produces them, or how they are transported to us. This leads to a disengagement from the realities of work and life faced by many in our own society and around the globe, and propagates in our minds a fatal fantasy of limitless resources, a fantasy that feeds the exploitation of the working poor and environmental degradation.

This is ‘a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.' To offer us a glimpse of the processes we avoid scrutinising, de Botton takes the reader on a logistical odyssey – the hunt for tuna, and its travels from the Indian Ocean at the hands of the Third World fisherman of the Maldives to the kitchen benches of the West. This is what happens when a fifty kilo yellowfin tuna is hooked and flung aboard a Maldivian fishing trawler:

‘The fishermen need [the tuna] to stop flooding his arteries with blood in panic, or he will darken, and therefore ruin, the appearance of his flesh against a dinner plate. So the captain's brother swiftly wrestles him between his rubber boots and raises aloft a large, blunt mallet, resembling the archetypal clubs of a prehistoric man, carved from the trunk of a coconut tree. He brings it down heavily. The tuna's eyes jerk out of their sockets. His tail convulses. His jaw opens and closes, as ours might do, but no scream emerges. The mallet strikes again. There is a dull sound, that of densely packed brain and experience, shattering inside a tight bony cage, triggering the thought that we too are never more than one hard slam away from a definitive end to our carefully arranged ideas and copious involvement with ourselves. The fisherman is himself enraged now, striking the beast vengefully, cursing the dying creature…“Bitch, bitch, you've had it now.” This is the first tuna he has caught in eight days, and there are six children at home.'

Alain de Botton is a writer, so his website informs us, of ‘essayistic books' that have been described as a 'philosophy of everyday life', penning bestsellers on such diverse subjects as love, travel, architecture and literature. He brings not only a philosopher's probing intelligence but a writer's instinctive empathy to his observations of the ‘high value' knowledge workers of the West and their pursuit of meaning and reward, and those who struggle in the relentless routines of our global networks of production. Each chapter of the text is accompanied by an extended photo essay from Richard Baker, who recorded de Botton's journeys and encounters with his subjects. Baker's photographs can be viewed at http://www.bakerpictures.com/

By Mark Hearn

Published 23 July 2009.

worksite home