The pleasures and sorrows of Alain de Botton.
30 October 2009
I have always rather enjoyed books by Alain de Botton. I really enjoyed Status Anxiety, although I'm hard-pressed to remember anything about it, now that I think of it, and I also liked The Art of Travel. Truth be told, though, I think I enjoy his subjects and the formats of his books more than I actually enjoy his style; Status Anxiety was about how we all try to keep up with each other in what we own and the affluence we project; it also included a number of photographs which served to break up de Botton's sometimes dense text.
The same goes for his most recent book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I read it over the last weekend and found it quite enjoyable, although once again the inclusion of photographs really helped it along. In the book he examines a number of different professions, but he doesn't so much investigate them as he ruminates on them, and sometimes from afar.* (In a chapter seemingly about transmission engineering, electricity, and the structure and construction of electric line pylons, he describes the work from the somewhat removed vantage point of walking along a trail of pylons across southeast England with a pylon installer and enthusiast, describing less the actual process of pylon installation than the willingness of human beings to ignore such fundamentally basic and important structures in their lives and surroundings.)
I don't know that this is an author I'd like to have a conversation with (he seems a bit prickly sometimes**) and sometimes I did get the feeling he's in love with the sound of his own voice, as when he describes his experiences at an aviation conference:
"At the stand of the world's second-largest engine manufacturer, I spent some minutes observing an unusually attractive young saleswoman with shoulder-length chestnut hair, dressed in a beige suit, who was biting the nail of her left index finger and crossing her slender legs whilst leaning against a large fan blade. She was not the first of her type I had seen that day, but something about her appearance left me thoughtful. I had until then believed that the vendors' frequent and deliberate reliance on feminine appeal was merely a vulgar stratagem intended to win over airline executives, through an implicit suggestion that a purchase might bring them closer to intimacy with a sales agent. Now I began to see the matter differently: it seemed obvious that no order, however lucrative, would actually render these women available to buyers, so their presence on the stands took on a more poignant and commercially effective dimension. Their real function was to serve as a reminder of the unavailability of beauty to an overwhelmingly male, middle-aged and harried-looking base of customers..."
I just don't know about all that. And it seemed to take a long time for de Botton to say. But overall? The subject matter and the photographs still won the day; the chapter on accountancy was a wonder to behold, and I simply love all books about work, the way only someone who really tries to avoid work at all costs can.
*Except for his chapter on tuna fishing, which is alarmingly in-depth. If you like tuna (and by this I mean, like having it in a sandwich) and you want to keep on liking tuna, I would suggest not reading the tuna chapter.
**Although I was a bit tickled that he told a reviewer who gave this book a less than sparkling review "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make." There he was able to get something said with remarkable economy of words! Reviewers of course have the right to actually review books, and authors have the right to respond, so his prickliness doesn't really bother me here.