Nonfiction: When the Living's Good


Alain de Botton
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
(Pantheon, 2009)

Alain de Botton would be a great guy to sit next to on a bus, get stuck with in an elevator, turn out to be your long lost brother. In his books, anyway, he seems to move through the world with just the right amounts of enthusiasm and irony, self-deprecation and show-offiness, sincerity and sport. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is his latest exploration of the meaning of life, or more specifically, cargo ship transport, rocket science, cookie manufacturing, and accounting. De Botton boards ships, peers into satellites, attends conventions, traces electricity pylons, spies on counseling sessions, and nibbles snacks, observing people doing all sorts of jobs, with photographer Richard Baker in tow. A de Botton book gives you pictures, and the ones here offer a frank presentation of the banalities of work: trucks, airplanes, logos, computer screens, dead fish, clouds of smoke, hair-netted and gloved factory workers and technicians, and higher-ups behind desks. The pictures are kind of boring, the point being that most of the time, work is too. But de Botton also wants us to recognize the amazing structures and systems humans have developed in a gigantic effort to better our lives; whether or not our lives are actually bettered by them is open for debate.

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Here’s one of his quixotic appeals on behalf of the wonders of manufacturing and transport:

If only security concerns were not so paramount in the imagination of its owners, the warehouse would make a perfect tourist destination, for observing the movement of lorries and products in the middle of the night induces a mood of distinctive tranquility, it magically stills the demands of the ego and corrects any danger of looming too large in one’s own imagination.

De Botton’s ruminations can get a bit goofy, but he’s aware of his own goofiness, unlike, apparently, the design team at United Biscuits, “the number-one player in the British biscuit market.” (That’s the cookie market to Americans.) “Many of the proceedings at United Biscuits had to them an air of gravity akin to that which might obtain in an airport control tower,” de Botton notes. He mockingly describes the development of a cookie called “Moments.” Its round shape is meant to invoke femininity and wholeness, while raisins and chocolate chips “convey an impression of kindly indulgence.” The name of the cookie is carefully selected to respond to a focus group of low-income mothers who “had spoken of their yearning for sympathy, affection, and ‘me-time.’” Finally, the font on the package embodies (or so its branders hope) both romance and real life—the “Mo” and “ent” in “Moments” featured in an Edwardian script, while the “m” and the “s” bear a more vertical orientation.

De Botton proposes a simple test for what makes a job feel meaningful: “Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.” In its own small way, cookie production might qualify. But its corporate apparatus is silly at best, soul-killing at worst. De Botton admires, and urges us to admire, the large-scale operations that keep modern life going. Yet he laments that often “the brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality.”

Shadowing a career counselor also evokes conflicting feelings. On the one hand, it’s a noble profession that helps people find satisfying and productive ways to spend a good bulk of their time. On the other, it’s rife with false promises of fulfillment and absurdities of assessment. Like the career counselor’s clients, de Botton fills out the Morrisby Personality Profile. It advises him that his future “may lie in one of the following fields: medical diagnostics, oil and gas exploration, or the leisure industry.”

A chapter on entrepreneurship finds de Botton at an event where small businesses and inventors attempt to attract investors. He’s taken by a product advertised as “shoes to walk on water,” and less won over by a bar of compressed potato chips, inspired by its creator’s “frustration at having to use two hands to eat her favorite snack.” The rare, successful entrepreneur, de Botton concludes, possesses both imaginative vision and a firm grasp of what people actually want or need. In his winsome way, he ends the chapter: “I pledged that I would return to the fair one year with some floating shoes of my own.” He has, of course, already fashioned his pair of floating shoes, and brought them to the fair of Borders and Barnes & Noble. De Botton’s shoes won’t make us walk on water, and they probably won’t help us achieve greater happiness in our work. But they’re well worth slipping into for a few hours of leisure.

Contributor

Polly Rosenwaike

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