My initial impression of this book was its weight. This Canadian edition is a smaller format book, so it is surprising to the senses when one first picks it up. It is due to the selection of heavier weight paper which has been used to accommodate the black and white photographs which accompany the text, photographs taken by Richard Baker. Holding the book made me think that weight is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for work itself. Images of Atlas or Sisyphus came to mind, representative precursors of the daily grind.
Alain de Botton writes that he was inspired to embark on this book by his observation of shipspotters on a pier in London. Perhaps there is a source of irony there, for the casual passerby, noticing strange individuals hanging about a pier with binoculars, would probably think they were jobless and had time on their hands. Either that, or eccentric retired folks with time on their hands. Perhaps the more imaginative would wonder if they were sailors waiting for a ship, and think wistfully of sails and the open sea. But Alain de Botton was truly inspired by their fascination with what most of us ignore.
In his essay on Accountancy, he shadows an accountant rising from their home in the Berkshires and catching the commuter train to London, and follows them through a day at the office of one of the world's major accountancy firms. He writes:
The headquarters on the bank of the Thames is the setting for a range of behaviours at least as peculiar as anything that an ethnographer might uncover among the clans of Samoa. (p. 231)
This is perhaps the thought that governs his work, for everything we do as humans, whether we are a tribe of accountants in an air-conditioned tower, tuna fishermen off the coast of the Maldives, or a single artist in a field wielding a paint brush, human endeavour is rich in consideration.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a book with wonderful writing, sharp insights, wry humour, and thoughtful philosophical musings. Whether it is about biscuit manufacture, pylon towers, accountancy, career counselling, or the craft of painting a single 250 year old oak tree over and over, Alain de Botton uses his wonderfully lucid mind and masterly writing skills to make us see life about us in a fresh and invigorating way, and makes us mindful of the interconnectedness of humans. There is a tinge of stoic melancholy about his conclusions of the necessity and importance of work, and a poignancy that for most of us, fulfillment and happiness are not to be found in our working lives.
Alain de Botton is travelling the world promoting the book. If that's not work, I don't know what is. Here is a link to a video of one of his lectures.
And here is a shorter video of a conversation with Will Hearst.
And for the curious, the room where some of the work gets done, Alain de Botton's room.