For most of us , work is merely the means of earning a living . When we think about it , if at all , it is to dream of ways of getting ahead , to do things quicker and better and with less effort , or how much we hate ( or in some cases , love ) it . Those of us who have been at it awhile count the days until we can retire and not have to work any more. Few of us think about the meaning of work or its role in our lives . In his captivating book ,The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work , Alain de Botton does just that … philosophise about work . Work may not sound like an interesting subject , but it is, it most assuredly is . In de Botton’s hands it turns into a fascinating topic , full of insights which get us thinking about it in a way we never did before.
In the prologue to the book , de Botton tells us how he hit upon the subject of his book. In Gravesend , he came upon five men standing in the rain watching freight laden ships steaming down the Thames on their way to distant lands . These ” cargo-ship spotters” were tracking the passing ships ,noting down their measurements , their engine sizes , their cargoes, their destinations and their timetables. They did it solely out of interest , without any expectation that their knowledge would bring them any monetary gain .Warmly clad against the chill , armed only with a thermos of coffee for sustenance , they braved rain and snow as they pursued their hobby with a dedication and intensity worthy of museum goers admiring a Renaissance painting . This led de Botton to ” attempt a hymn to the intelligence , peculiarity , beauty and horror of the modern workplace ” and whether work does indeed give meaning to Life.
He begins with a visit to a logistics hub , an agglomeration of twenty-five enormous gray warehouses , where food is flown in from various parts of the world and then trucked to consumers all over Britain. All of us have wondered , at one time or another , about how food is gathered from farms and meat packers and fisheries and delivered to the supermarkets . We’ve all seen the refrigerated trailers delivering goods to the supermarket but that is only the last step in the process.I’d never even heard of the term ” logistics hub” though somewhere in the back of my mind I’d postulated something like it .It’s size ( five square kilometers of shelf space !!)and the sheer complexity of its functioning are astounding. For instance , I didn’t know that strawberries begin to develop mold only 96 hours after they are picked. In that time , they have to make their way from the farm to the dinner table .
In later chapters , de Botton investigates tuna fishing in the Maldives ( and the tuna’s journey via processing plant , airplane , logistics hub and supermarket to the consumer), a biscuit factory , the launch of a French commercial satellite in French Guiana, a career counselor , a landscape painter, a transmission engineer, an accounting firm , an entrepreneur and aviation . It is a nice mix of professions and it gives de Botton an opportunity to ponder the meaning of work in our lives and the way it has evolved over the centuries.His ruminations take some fascinating twists and turns : how work has become less satisfying even as it becomes more specialized ; the difference between the Catholic and Protestant views of work and how some high minded countries have let their citizens starve while rampant consumerism has enabled other societies to give their members a better standard of living . Occasionally , de Botton stumbles a s when he wonders why the most money accrues from the sale of the least meaningful things ( I don’t think that is true) or when he speculates about the fact that children’s books only contain references to a few professions such as farmer , fireman , shopkeeper (that’s hardly to be wondered at . Children understand what these professions do , they don’t understand transmission engineers and accountants) .
De Botton meets a variety of people during his peregrinations , many of them admirable . There is the landscape painter who has been painting the same oak tree for three years in all sorts of weather while making less money at it than a mediocre plumber , the entrepreneurs who are risking their all on products that will almost surely fail , the transmission engineer who spends his vacation cataloging transmission towers and eight year old Sam , a Bristol lad who muses that ” our perpetual killing of fish has left the seas choked with an array of pallid oceanic ghosts who will one day gather together to exact a terrible vengeance on humanity… “.
One of the charms of de Botton’s book is his superlative command of the language . It is a pleasure to see how well he conveys intricate thoughts , always managing to find the exact word to best describe subtle nuances of meaning . Sometimes , however , he gets carried away with his own eloquence. One of his sentences had no less than fifty-eight words ; there were others almost as long.
“The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work ” is part book , part photo essay , containing as it does dozens of black and white photographs . These are not the usual type of photos since they are the candid camera type with the subjects unaware that they are being photographed. Surprisingly , the very artlessness of the photos ( I thought at first that be Botton had snapped them himself) makes them very effective . They convey only too well the tediousness , the soullessness of most work ,a theme that de Botton returns to again and again in the course of the book. In the last chapter , de Botton stumbles on an airplane graveyard in the Mojave Desert, a place where hulks of obsolete airplanes are stored . It is amazing to read how these planes ,some only thirty years old, contain so many gadgets and systems that have long been superseded. This causes de Botton to muse about the place of work in our lives , how central it is to who we are and , yet , how ephemeral our puny efforts are. It is a melancholy thought though he tries to end on a note of hope . Truly , the fortunate are the few among us who love what they do for a living and find meaning in it .
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Alain de Botton . Pantheon Books , New York ( 2009) $ 26.