Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review: "Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" (Alain de Botton)

Title: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
Author: Alain De Botton
Published: NY: Pantheon Books, 2009, (333pp).
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
This book is one of my required readings in preparation for my Boston residency next month. Written by a Swiss-born founder of England's School of Life, Botton is remarkably observant of the highs and lows of the work environment. With a penchant for details, he strings each observation together with constant probing of meaning in each occupation he studies. The questions he ask are basic, but profoundly meaningful.
  • Why do we work?
  • What makes it pleasurable?
  • What is the meaning of the work we do?
  • What significance does the work bring to the person, to the company and to society at large?
Botton selects ten diverse occupations; namely, cargo ship spotting; logistics; biscuit manufacturer; career counselling; rocket science; painting; transmission engineering; painting; accountancy; entrepreneurship and aviation. In each particular subject, Botton personally visits each site, writing down what he sees and asks insightful questions about why things appear as they are. Every chapter is filled with childlike curiosity and adult-like philosophy. With sharp literary skills, Botton brings us through a rollercoaster of 'pleasures and sorrows' of each type of work. He is spot on as he talks about the enigmatic mixture of work, environment, rewards, pleasures and toil.
"We are now more imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt." (35)

He makes a grand philosophical observation about the Western perspective of work and rewards compared to the rest of the world. He describes the tendency of Western society to work beyond simply making ends meet:
"All societies have had work at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative. " (106)
The book is aided with powerful photographs which gives readers an opportunity to see what the author sees, as well as to reason it out for themselves.

My Comments
The author impresses me with his attention to details, as well as his willingness to go the distance to observe the extent of each occupation. He traces electrical distribution lines from power station to the individual house in the UK. He travels to the Maldives and studies the modern logistics of fish traveling more than half the world within hours of being caught. He interviews and observes how accountants from one of the world's largest accounting firms work, as well as the environments they deal with. He climbs in and out of aging aircraft fuselage, and ends with a philosophical description by asking what is the end of work?

Despite the fascination of the wonders of modern technology and advancement, there is a nagging sense that the perception of meaning has NOT kept pace.
"I felt keenly the psychological adjustments required by life in modernity; the need to juggle a respect for the potential offered by science with an awareness of how perplexingly limited and narrowly framed might be its benefits." (167)
The book looks like a combination of a travelogue plus photo album that provides a captivating overview of the ordinary work environment, its workers and their impact on society. Botton concludes that work has a multi-pronged purpose.

"Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble." (326)

Wow! At a time when many workers question why they work, Botton provides us with a multiplicity of reasons for work, in other words, the pleasures and sorrows of work. Interestingly, I would have expected Botton to deal with computer technology and the telecommuting environment. However, technology is mentioned at various parts of the book. I guess technology and telecommunications have become so ubiquitous that Botton deems it unnecessary for its own category. Still, I believe there is a place for technology to be treated on its own category in this book. Maybe in a second edition, I hope Botton will include this increasingly common occupation.

I find this book a very intelligent one. It gives me a new way to appreciate ordinary work, and to learn to ask why certain things are done. It reminds me that complex working infrastructure can often be best understood with simple questions. After all, isn't life essentially small building blocks of history, philosophy and simple humanity?

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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