The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
4 out of 5: In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton presents a series of essays on working life, each one focused on a different industry or career. In his own words, de Botton is attempting "a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life's meaning." De Botton’s essays, written in his satisfyingly dense and artful prose, are accompanied by haunting black-and-white photographs illustrating either the bleakness or the beauty, and sometimes both, of our modern work landscapes.
De Botton’s aim in examining our working lives is two-fold. In addition to exploring our motivations to work and the meaning we hope to draw from our jobs, de Botton seeks to pierce the superficiality of our material world. Instead of viewing a package of cookies on the grocery store shelf as a simple afternoon snack, de Botton exhorts us to get beyond the surface to consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of people working every day to ensure those cookies are available to us. In this way, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is striving “to mitigate the deadening, uniquely modern sense of dislocation between the things we so heedlessly consume in the run of our daily lives and their unknown origins and creators."
Occasionally, de Botton's focus on certain unsavory details (like the smell of "freshly boiled cabbage or swede" pervading the home office of a career counselor) comes close to condescension. More often, de Botton treats his subjects with empathy and sensitivity. This beautifully designed and produced book is a pleasure to read.