The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

“What do you do all day?” children often ask their working parents. The activities of all but the most obvious occupations — butcher, baker, candlestick maker — can be especially mysterious and abstract, and not just to children. Brand supervision coordinator? Rocket scientist?

The question has spawned numerous books, including Richard Scarry’s children’s classic What Do People Do All Day? and Studs Terkel’s great oral history, Working (1974). In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton explores some of the increasingly specialized fields of the workaday industrialized world — cargo shipping, snack food product development, accountancy, airplane parts. He laments that most of us are woefully ignorant of, indifferent to, and disconnected from “the manufacture and distribution of our goods” and, indeed, from the machines and processes that facilitate our lives.

The Swiss-born, Cambridge University–educated British writer and television documentarian is the author of several quirky self-help books, including How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, and Status Anxiety, all of which strive to demonstrate that philosophy and literature can offer practical, applicable usefulness. Their overarching theme is that happiness is within reach if you’re willing to employ unusual — generally intellectual — tools to grasp it.

De Botton’s new book is more reportorial than scholarly and more peripatetic than contemplative — but no less thought-provoking and unpredictable in its often delightfully unexpected angles and wry humor. Like his earlier books, Work is liberally illustrated, this time with black-and-white photographs of industrial sites, warehouses, office cubicles, and trade shows, mostly by his undercredited collaborator, photographer Richard Baker.

In his prior volumes, de Botton has been essentially optimistic, convinced that existence is subject to improvement through our own rational efforts. His view is less rosy in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Many of the tasks that consume a large share of workers’ lives strike him as dreary and, worse, in service of trivial ends, such as the creation and marketing of McVities’ new line of Moments cookies, which he follows from conception through manufacture and distribution. De Botton writes that this “disparity between a seriousness of means and a triviality of ends” can lead to disheartening “crises of meaning at our computer terminals and our warehouses, contemplating with low-level despair the banality of our labor while at the same time honoring the material fecundity that flows from it.”

Yet what surfaces repeatedly in de Botton’s book is the extraordinary earnestness, sometimes bordering on obsessiveness, with which workers fulfill their appointed tasks. Could this tendency to “exaggerate the significance of what we are doing” be a remarkable self-survival technique? We may be overspecialized cogs in the machine, as de Botton suggests, but we perform our assigned duties with a sense that each cog is of vital importance. This not only affects manufacturers of airplane air hoses, but the critic writing this review.

And, indeed, it also applies to de Botton’s absorption in his book project. He describes languishing for days in Maldives while waiting for a fishing boat to be repaired in order to follow tuna from its source in the Indian Ocean to a Bristol supermarket. Walking the power line between a nuclear plant on the Kent coast to a substation in East London with an engineer who installs electricity pylons sparks his enthusiastic conclusion “that there were few troubling situations in contemporary life from which one could not distract oneself by wondering where the electricity had arrived from.” In the Mojave Desert, he deflects a guard’s verbal abuse with a bribe that enables him to poke around in an aviation graveyard while reflecting on mortality and decay, the flip side of progress. (This scene evokes Geraldine Chaplin in Robert Altman’s Nashville reporting from a “graveyard” of parked school buses.)

De Botton notes that it is only relatively recently in human history that work (rather than lineage) has come to define our identity, and that self-fulfillment — in addition to money — has become an important motivator. Like the poet Donald Hall, whose Life Work (1993) extols the advantages of loving what you do, de Botton is among the privileged minority fortunate enough to be able to set his own agenda.

Although de Botton does consider people who are passionate about their work — including some hopeful inventors and an artist who spends years painting the same oak tree over and over again in an East Anglia wheat field — his primary focus is the more obscure, prosaic “limbs of industry.” He clearly finds the soullessness of many jobs a source of horrified fascination — a stance some may find vaguely condescending.

Yet de Botton is at his best when describing how the most mundane efforts result in constructs of strange power and even beauty. He is awed by the collective effort of “engineers and technicians?these new medicine men” required to launch a satellite from French Guiana into space for beaming television broadcasts to Japan: “And yet, as a non-scientist examining the rocket-assembly building, gazing at a needle of solid propellant nine stories tall, one felt that a most unmagical of approaches had nevertheless succeeded in producing a device which was not entirely free of supernatural associations.”

What keeps us reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is not so much the peek into cloistered industrial zones exposed by de Botton’s reporting as the freshness of his observations and the ironic bite of his language. Of a particularly bleak tea shop along the electrical route, he comments, “How cheerful one would have needed to be in such a place in order not to regret existence.” He likens accountants’ “labyrinthine craft” to “numerical needlework” and admires that they “have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit.” He wonders whether inventors, who must demonstrate “a judicious fusion of the utopian and the practical,” are perhaps blessed with “a superior capacity for dissatisfaction” that propels them to come up with novel solutions to life’s problems.

As those desperately seeking employment in today’s bleak economy are well aware, work itself is a solution to many of life’s problems — not just in providing financial wherewithal but distraction from greater anxieties, including mortality. Or, as the 19th-century Kansas poet Ironquill wrote:

Work brings its own relief
He who most idle is
Has most of grief.