My life through books #2: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

I first discovered Alain de Botton because we had Status Anxiety, one of his (many) books on the shelf in the book shop I managed for a few months. The job was one of the most mind-numbingly dull I have ever under-taken, despite my misty-eyed sentimentality about making it a hub for African literature and philosophy. The owners were only concerned about pushing more copies of Twilight or the latest Baldacci thriller. While both Twilight and Baldacci have a valuable place in getting the public reading (I am not a purist and believe that readers should never be shamed for their choices – but that is another blog for another day), the shop I worked in was in a mall, and readers were more likely to buy a cheaper copy from the CNA or the better stocked Exclusive Books across the corridor.

Which brings me back to de Botton. The book caught my eye because I was beginning to have Status Anxiety. I was working in retail, a job which grants the status of a punching bag (practically an inanimate object that takes a lot of abuse), but this was not the root of my anxiety. It was being in a big city for the first time, and working in a mall being constantly surrounded by beautiful things that I was unable to acquire.

Before Pretoria, the most expensive store at which I could buy clothes was Woolworths (and a small-town Woolworths with hardly anything in it). Now I was being surrounded by just about anything I wanted: from multiple copies of obscure classic books I previously thought had never landed on our South African shores, a Nine West store (this was the only store that stocked my dream shoes when I was a teenager: two-tone high heels. I saw them in a magazine and pined), and Kauai (I thought only *Cape Town* had those…). Anyway, I was a little horrified by my almost physical longing for those beautiful fabrics and crisp pages in brand new books and for the legitimacy owning such objects would grant me (this was before I read Sarah Nuttall on identity creation through consumption), so “Status Anxiety” seemed as good a term as any and I was thrilled to see someone else had written about the creeping phenomena I was experiencing in my own life.

As I explained above, though, I couldn’t afford the book at the time, so I forgot about it (and its author) until I was researching philosophies of work on the internet and came across his TED talk and Maria Popova’s recommendation of his (short-ish) book on the subject: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. So I downloaded the audiobook (I am a Platinum member of Audible) and started listening.

de Botton calls The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work an essay rather than a book, and I would tend to agree with him. He slips straight into a description of a busy harbour and of all the produce that is shipped in and out. He details the messy, dirty behind-the-scenes work that results in the glossy malls and products that I was so bewitched by. He then goes on to explore different careers by going to speak to and spend time with the people involved and describing their day-to-day habits and the challenges of their work, interspersed with his own musings and realisations on the subject of work itself. He speaks to a rocket scientist, a career counsellor, a commercial fisherman (and the fish-factory’s owner), as well as an engineer and an accountant.

I was extremely keen to read the book, but I must say that the voice of the narrator was faintly patronising, which did not leave a good impression on me. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in my own head. Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal (a fascinating look into evolutionary psychology) suffered a similar fate, as the narrator has a deep voice and seems to enjoy sounding his vowels and speaking as though he were giving a lecture rather than explaining interesting subject matter.

In addition, I was put off by de Botton’s occasional mockery of his subjects. His dwelling on the subject of the nasty smells of the house of the career counsellor he visits (from the cooking of cabbage to the smell of sweat from a gym) made me feel protective of his subjects: it made me upset that he made his subjects smaller and more pathetic than they (probably) already feel.

He does have some wonderful observations about the nature of the modern world and the pressures it places on people to find some kind of ecstatic fulfilment through making a lot of money and changing something in the process, specifically in the field of entrepreneurship. The statistical improbability of this happening (2 in 2000) makes this belief one of the really dangerous ones:

…in reality, the likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not relentlessly play up the possibilities open to all those with a take on the future of the potato crisp, and so, in turn, did not cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.

When I moved to this megalopolis, I quickly realised almost everyone had some kind of entrepreneurship dream stored in their back pocket or functioning out of their garage. While I do not want mean to sneer at such efforts to achieve the sublime of being your own boss and creating employment (as Talk Radio 702 seems to espouse constantly), I do worry it makes us “equate an ordinary life with a failed one”, which makes me sad.

Seeking the sublime in work does make me think that most of us see work as a way of “anchoring the motives for [our] existence” (de Botton again). Certainly, that is why many people seek to “do what you love” through work. As Miya Tokumitsu argues in this fascinating article, when we all seek to “do what you love”, it is more problematic than it first appears:

Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not?

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace*.

de Botton only touches on these issues tangentially (and, at times, naively), and his essay is more focussed on musing and posing questions than answering them. This makes his writing wonderfully open-ended, and if you are looking for musings from a very particular kind of brain (one that makes sweeping comparisons to medieval morality and painters) and many descriptions of occupations, this is the book for you. If you are looking for something more concrete than one man’s whimsical description of individual encounters (as I am when I read books about matters of life and death), I would avoid it.

*You should really read this article. It is fascinating.