A labouring world
The book is both an elegy and epitaph for industrial civilisation.
His attempt is to compose a "hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror" of the labouring world and the industrial complex.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work; Alain de Botton; Hamish Hamilton, 2009; £ 18.99.
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am an unabashed admirer of Alain de Botton’s work. By training and temperament a philosopher, his forte has been to distil practical wisdom from the writings of the great thinkers and apply it to an examination of enduring questions and everyday dilemmas. This he does in lucid, witty and poetic prose.
Most of his books use visuals that work in conjunction with the text. His range is eclectic, his output prodigious. Starting with The Consolations of Philosophy (1990), which became a bestseller, de Botton has set an enviable track record: for a writer just hitting 40, he has published eight books which have been translated into 20 languages. Born in Zurich, he lives in London.
His attempt in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is to compose a “hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror” of the labouring world and the industrial complex. Along the way, he raises the question that concerns most people: How can I earn money and find fulfilment in my job?
Starting us off with Cargo Ship Spotting along the Thames, we are led through port and warehousing facilities (not your average tourist destinations) to wonder why the tedium and drama of aluminium foundries, sewage plants, paper mills or biscuit factories is not as stimulating as a visit to a museum or a cathedral or the contemplation of a nude or the sighting of an exotic bird.
As we walk through the aisles of a supermarket displaying an average of 20000 items, we never stop to think of the long journeys the tomatoes, the strawberries and the citrus fruits have made from field to shelf. We are disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of goods and this process, de Botton explains, has stripped us of myriad opportunities for astonishment, gratitude and guilt.
The photo essay that follows closes the gap between consumers and originators by tracking the progress of a tuna fillet backwards from the Maldives, by boat, plane and lorry to a table in a suburban London home. It is a mini odyssey laden with blood and gills, politics and bureaucracy.
The biscuit industry under the tutelage of its creators comes out as a branch of psychology, not baking, with codified manoeuvres designed to tease out longings from its customers. In industry in general, jobs are so segmented and specialised — with pretentious titles to match — that no one understands anymore what anyone else is doing. Additionally, the workers who make the products that seek to satisfy everyone’s yearnings, themselves remain isolated and anxious waiting like characters in an Edward Hopper painting to be rescued from a state of limbo.
A look into Rocket Science — the launching of a communications satellite for a Japanese TV company by a team of international scientists from a remote outpost in French Guiana — with its ultra high tech vocab attaining almost mythological status, is followed by a chapter tracing the obsession of an unknown artist who spends years making miniature paintings of a single tree. The reader is left to draw the obvious parallels and contrasts between the two pursuits.
But on top of this open sandwich is placed another slice of science and it is nothing less than the poetry of electricity pylons, those ubiquitous steel towers that carry power at a speed of 300,000 km per second. De Botton travels 175 km by foot and car in the company of a transmission engineer to conduct us into the encyclopaedic lore of pylons — something we’ve paid no attention to before or thought of only as ugly metal marring our bucolic landscape with permanent scars.
As if he has not already hooked us, the author displays even more dazzle as he walks into one of the world’s largest accountancy firms hiring over five thousand employees in a single multi-storey see-through building along the riverfront in London. The opening pages of this chapter get into the mind of a business unit senior manager to follow her from a dream she’s waking from until she arrives on the office stage ready for clear-eyed action. Accountancy itself is defined as a “labyrinthine craft” and “numerical needlework.”
The next two stops are showcases. One is an exhibition of entrepreneurship from Libya to New Zealand whose products and schemes range from the bizarre to the unprofitable. The second is an air show in Paris of aeronautical products and systems pedalled to the world’s airlines which prompts de Botton to the thought that this “air show was only one of hundreds of industry-specific events taking place around the world…devoted to seaside condos, dental equipment, waste management and pharmaceuticals, weddings and caravans.”
More by accident than by intention, the author ends his journey in the Mojave desert in a graveyard for jetliners strewn with the carcasses of what once were marvels of aviation technology. Which offers de Botton a fitting locale for an elegy and epitaph to industrial civilisation and its discontents.
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