Huldra Forsvant (Theodor Kittelsen)

Huldra Forsvant (Theodor Kittelsen)
Huldra Forsvant (Theodor Kittelsen)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Review Wednesday by Georgina

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
By Alain de Botton (2009)

Review by Georgina

Last year I read a review on Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and, it inspired me so much that as soon as I could, I walked into a bookstore and bought the book. I spent the next few days delighting in torturing my friends as I read aloud quotes. It would be the best book I read in 2009.

One of the reasons for this recommendation is his skill with words. For example, with wry and detached humour, he sketches in words the portraits of people and groups he meets.

On Lawrence, a biscuit marketing executive, he writes: “He was a volatile mixture of confidence and vulnerability. He could deliver extended monologues on professional matters, then promptly stop in his tracks to peer inquisitively into his guest’s eyes for signs of boredom or mockery, being intelligent enough to be unable to fully believe in his own claims of significance.” (p. 73)

On accounting executives, he writes: “It isn’t easy to encourage accountants to expand on what they do. They feel that any curiosity shown by a civilian must conceal mockery... But with perseverance, their reflective self-deprecation gradually gives way to a more earnest pride in their mastery of a labyrinthine craft.”

On entrepreneurs: “Though forced to justify their efforts in the pragmatic language of venture capital, they were at heart Utopian thinkers intent on transforming the world for the better, one deodorant-dispensing machine at a time”.

You can see, even from those excerpts, that Alain de Botton demonstrates an exceptional skill at observing people in detail. Actually, it’s pretty hard, as an amateur reviewer, to even form words that do justice to Alain de Botton’s writing. But I will try.

I think the real joy I get from reading this book is because Alain de Botton doesn’t write like philosophers write. He writes in sentences that I can understand; he makes me laugh as he puts phrases together; and I can relate completely to his empathic care and gentleness. He writes with a childlike innocence but a poet’s prose. It’s this combination of wonder and gorgeous language which makes him, in my opinion, one of the best living writers in the secular world.

He structures his book as a series of ten essays into different work areas: everything from biscuit manufacture to electricity pylons; from logistics to accountancy. Each chapter is a self-contained observation of the particular area. As he says in an interview in Business Week he wanted to explore a topic frequently ignored in literature: working in the world.

He writes with the purpose of gently, almost accidentally, interrogating the reader on our own work decisions and purpose. He examines the belief in society that work should make us happy, and how Britons make career decisions based on “jobs chosen for them by their unthinking sixteen-year-old selves”. He examines our sometime dissatisfaction with our lot, and the idea that we think we should find a “calling”, and then knocks us off our self-absorbed perches to see the beauty in the average job.

I think this is a very valuable book to read for any Christian. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work seems to reflect the wonder, mystery, sadness and beauty of the working world, in a similar way that the Psalmist reflects on the beauty of God’s creation. I think it’s a common belief among Christians that it’s only in the natural world, not the man-made world, that we truly see God at work. But de Botton rightly lifts the cover of darkness on that error in thinking and shows us the beauty of the man-made world. He restores us from the world-weariness I think many Christians, or indeed workers everywhere, have - that this world is completely fallen, and that there is no beauty in the everyday grind of work.

I would be in error though to stop there. Actually, he goes further, claiming that we are now “almost exclusively amazed by ourselves”, and that we “feel respect for circuit boards and pity and guilt towards glaciers”. It is evident that Alain de Botton thinks we have moved beyond religion and God, and have failed to see our greatness as creators over this man-made world.

Though it is written in a sweet and genuine way, there is a deep and underlying despair present throughout the book, no more evident than in his chapter on the careers counsellor. His portrait of the occupation is sad - that so few investigate careers before finding themselves somehow doing something for 20 years that they only mildly, if that, enjoy. Symons, the counsellor he interviews, quotes Maslow in his office: “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement”. Alain de Botton seems to accept this thesis, and the crushing pessimism it evokes. The idea that work should fulfill us is also argued by de Botton, that the world’s view, at least in the modern western world, work is “able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning”.

Of course, we know this isn’t true. This is where it is very clear that Alain de Botton is not a Christan. We are commanded to work, as we are able, and to try and provide for ourselves where possible, but it isn’t our principal source of life’s meaning. Yes, it can be deeply fulfilling, but we cannot expect that it will be. Our purpose is to seek to glorify God by whatever we do. That being said, I do love that this book also reminds us of the incredible beauty and wonder of the created world: that man, under God’s sovereignty and purpose, manages the planet in an amazingly complex, creative way. I think we sometimes fail to hold that tension in our heads.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to refresh their vision to the joy and wonder in the Created world.

Thank you for your review, Georgina-- I've heard a lot of good things about this book, I'll have to check it out.

1 comment:

Stuart Heath said...

Thanks for this, Georgina (and Ben). I love Botton's books, and have reflected on this one here and here.

A couple of thoughts as I read. Firstly, today, philosophers often (try to) write clearly and engagingly. That's what we were encouraged to do in my undergrad philosophy courses, too. Can't say the same for theologians, regrettably :/ Tom Wright is an exception.

Secondly, I think it's part of our created design to be workers. 'Glorifying God' is not a separate activity we do in the day. It suffuses everything we do, when we do it in a godly way. (This implies, of course, that you need to know how to cook/work/parent/drive/etc. in a godly way before you know how to glorify God in this area of life.)

Given that "love" is the summary of the Christian life, and that "work" is one of the key ways we get to love people, I think Botton has stumbled onto something profound, here. Of course, I would want to say, "We love because of and for Jesus," and, "We work because of and for Jesus," but that shapes how we love and work; it doesn't change the importance of love and work.