Kat Murrell
Summer reading

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

By - Aug 4th, 2009 12:41 pm
Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee

murrell alain de botton

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
By Alain de Botton
Pantheon Books. 336 pages.

We’re rounding the last curve of summer already. It’s August, but at least it’s finally hot. And lazy. These are the dog days of the season, languid afternoons and sultry evenings ready to be spent on sandy beaches or cushy lounge chairs. If you’re not napping or daydreaming, reading is a great way to occupy your mind. But what to read?

Well, how about a book about work? Ouch – that word jumps off the page with the weight of an anvil falling on your foot, especially after the gauzy pleasantries of warm weather relaxation. But this is not a painful or pedantic book. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton, is a purposeful collection of essays — entertaining, but not inane.

De Botton writes with the sensitive aplomb of a gracious host. He presents the complexities of great philosophical ideas in relation to ordinary living in earlier, eminently readable works such as How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He is also a founder of the School of Life, an actual brick-and-mortar location in London, which supports a variety of innovative projects and classes concerning the palette of human experience.

His latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, is a field trip through a myriad of unusual, often hidden professions. No, not the sensationalized and scandalous sort of thing that is shouted about on evening newsmagazines (International Hedgehog Racing Exposed!), but thoughtful observations on what people do for a living in occupations fulfilling and mysterious in their own ways.

An early chapter has de Botton, in the middle of the night, surveying the mega-workings of a major logistics operation in England. In a complex of massive, gray warehouses he witnesses workers orchestrating the shipping of thousands of goods for delivery:

“Inside, staff circulate between shelves, placing goods onto automated runways, which rush them to rows of steel cages lined up behind the loading bays, where they wait to be driven to a range of obscurely numbered destinations. For example, 02093-30 refers to a cathedral town boasting a theatre and a brewery, a place which hosted a Parliamentarian army during the Civil War and retains several fine Georgian squares and which every morning, unnoticed by most of its residents, is visited by an articulated lorry from across the Pennine Hills, carrying in its hold Parmesan cheese, red jelly, fishcakes, and lamb cutlets.” (41)

The ballet of logistics and the origin of goods are further explored in the Maldives with the hunt for tuna in a small fishing vessel, the launch of a Japanese TV satellite in French Guiana, and an above-ground cemetery of dismembered airplanes in the Mojave Desert. For whom is this part of daily life, and what do they do?

De Botton takes us through other occupations that float decidedly toward the typical, visible surface of the workaday world (read: cubicles and offices buildings). He shadows employees at an accounting firm, and gets into the head of the Design Director at United Biscuits, responsible for developing cookies called “Moments.” The author largely takes on a sympathetic tone, expanding his gaze to draw out the complexities that weave us all together, even for something as inconsequential as a biscuit. There is still an edge though, a wry eye that wonders if all this fuss is really necessary for a cookie, particularly one with such a vainglorious name. But he also makes the case that these seemingly inflated and silly pursuits have their importance in the world:

“Many of the proceedings at United Biscuits had to them an air of gravity akin to that which might obtain in an airport control tower. This was because, for all their questionable taste and negligible nutritional value, biscuits made money – and in the sort of quantities which would have overwhelmed the exchequers of the greatest monarchs in history. To look at the biscuit profit figures in the light of graphs by the modern historian of the Tudors, Sir Geoffrey Elton, the company was pulling in more money in profits every year than Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had succeeded in doing in their entire reigns combined – all this from a beige-brick office block in the north-eastern corner of Hayes, only twenty minutes by car from the gilded state rooms of Hampton Court.” (82)

The elements of history, observations, ideas and humor make this book an interesting volume for anyone to read. I especially appreciate the way de Botton elegantly illustrates relationships to the creative fields and fine arts, even in discussions of brawny subjects such as the movement of cargo ships in the narrow channel of the Thames. Precision is found in many forms. Moreover, one of the occupations he investigates is that of an artist, Stephen Taylor of Colchester, England, and his long-term commitment to painting a particular tree in the English countryside.

This book tells stories in words as well as pictures throughout. Frankly, it makes me wish more books were this collaborative, as de Botton’s poetic turns of phrase and engrossing stories are punctuated by black-and-white photographs by Richard Baker. Savor de Botton’s words while studying the stark images of Baker.

This summer reading selection takes a step back from the world as we all-too-often know it, full of drudgery and dullness, and casts it under a far more nuanced light, exposing in fascinating relief the pleasures, sorrows and the labors that can also be love.

Categories: Art, Arts & Culture, Books, VITAL

0 thoughts on “Summer reading: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”

  1. Anonymous says:

    and for something with a bit of grit, read: Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. 1974. Used paperbacks available for under $10.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us