three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-The Pleasures and Sorrows of WorkSwiss-born Alain de Botton, writer and founder of a unique educational establishment (The School of Life) in London, has examined the everyday satisfactions, annoyances, and routines of travel, architecture, and self-help in his previous works. In his latest book, de Botton undertakes the exploration of "the world of occupations." Recently reviewed: The Architecture of Happiness ( 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007).

The Topic: "So, what do you do for a living?" This conversational icebreaker among strangers, argues de Botton, illustrates how closely we align our identities with our livelihoods. In fact, he clarifies, modern civilization is the first to assume that a "meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment"-a legacy of the Age of Enlightenment. In ten chapters, de Botton examines ten different industries-from rocket science to painting to biscuit manufacturing-and outlines the joys and frustrations, the structures and customs of each. Amid anecdotes and eye-opening facts, de Botton poses important questions about the nature of the professional world: What is the meaning of work? How do we choose our vocations? Is it possible to be fulfilled by our jobs?
Pantheon. 328 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780375424441

Business Week 4 of 5 Stars
"In each [chapter], de Botton does a New Journalism-style immersion and delivers a quirky account reminiscent of both Aristotle and The Office. ... Yes, he's heavy. He's also hilarious." Michelle Conlin

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"The book starts slowly, but when de Botton hits his stride, he can be as amusing as Monty Python and as provocative as Karl Marx, another continental who left Europe for London, where both men chewed over alienation and the means of production. ... De Botton has the welcome gift of self-deprecation, mixed with a couple of blind spots, including his incomprehension of religious conviction. But he is largely funny and generous; he does not come to mock." Karen R. Long

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"De Botton has wise and insightful things to say about the place and meaning of work in the modern world, many of them lightly coated in his absurdist sense of humor. ... Some of de Botton's subjects seem, understandably, wary of a brainy writer analyzing their workaday lives, but, to his credit, de Botton never uses his learning to patronize them; rather, he deploys big names and big ideas to better understand why people do what they do with the lion's share of their time and energy." Robert Cremins

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"With de Botton's humor, boundless erudition and capable turns of phrase, it's the best work yet (and certainly the best-timed) from a pre-eminent genre-bender, one certain to find a welcome home in the hands of anyone making a living." Karla Starr

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His own lyricism does an enormous amount of work-churning images, associations, facts, ideas, insights and perspectives into something too dynamic to call a collage, too diffuse to constitute an argument, and too compelling and beautifully written to ignore. ... As a result, we come away from his book with no real conclusions about work, but instead, a sense that for any topic this big, there can be no grand argument." Tom Lutz

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"The problem with de Botton's analysis is that it too closely ties satisfaction to the final product or service. Less credence is given to the innate rewards of labor during the process." Stephen Humphries

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work succeeds as entertainment, if not as analysis, when de Botton allows himself to geek out, as when he flies to the Maldives to follow a tuna's journey to a dinner table in Bristol, traipses after a painter who has devoted years to an oak in East Anglia or rummages through a graveyard of mothballed airplanes in the Mojave Desert. The misfires seem to come when he steps into an office." Caleb Crain

Critical Summary

By and large, critics enjoyed de Botton's "global tour of the daily grind" (Houston Chronicle). His erudition, sardonic sense of humor, and elegant writing frame the fascinating, if elusive, questions he sets out to answer. Though the New York Times Book Review considered de Botton's observations demeaning to his subjects, other critics thought he was generous and unassuming. Critics also mulled over the role of the photographs provided by Richard Baker. Perhaps the main point of contention between critics was de Botton's unique approach: his insistence in crossing genres and blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction exasperated some critics while delighting others. Admirers of de Botton's style may not find the key to fulfillment here, but they will certainly enjoy the ride.