Book Review: The Pleasures & Sorrows of Work

March 01, 2010

Book Review: The Pleasures & Sorrows of Work

Last year when I read about Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I was so inspired that as soon as I could, I walked into a bookstore and bought the book. I spent the next few days delightedly torturing my friends as I read quotes aloud. It was the best book I read in 2009.

One of the reasons I recommend the book so highly is de Botton's skill with language. He writes with a childlike innocence but a poet’s prose, and his combination of wonder, insight, and gorgeous language makes him, in my opinion, one of the great living writers. With words, and a wry and detached humour, he sketches portraits of the people and groups he meets:

Of Lawrence, a biscuit marketing executive: “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” (p73).

Of accounting executives: “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” (p239).

Of 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” (p231).

You can see, even from these brief excerpts, that de Botton demonstrates an exceptional skill at observing people in detail. Unlike most philosophers, he writes simply and clearly, and makes us laugh as he puts phrases together. We relate completely to his empathy and gentleness.

The book is structured as a series of ten essays into different work areas: everything from manufacturing biscuits to electricity pylons; from logistics to accountancy.  Each chapter is a self-contained observation of the particular area of work. As he says in an interview in Business Week[1], he wanted to explore a topic frequently ignored in literature: working in the world.

He writes with the purpose of gently, almost accidentally, interrogating readers on their own work decisions and purpose. In his chapter on career counselling, he examines the commonly held belief that work should make us happy, and yet notes that so many Britons make career decisions based on “jobs chosen for them by their unthinking sixteen-year-old selves” (p??).  This chapter is central to the book:  we fall randomly into work and become so specialized that we lose the ability to see how our work fits into the worldwide workforce, and frequently we fail to fully investigate this crucial life decision that for many of us steals so many hours of our lives. 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 for Christians to read. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work reflects 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. Christians sometimes make the mistake of believing that it’s only in the natural world, not the man-made world, that we truly see God at work, but de Botton accidently lifts the cover of darkness on that error in thinking and shows us the beauty of the man-made world. While he makes no claim to be Christian, or belief in any god at all, his writing does challenge the world-weariness many Christians—and indeed workers everywhere—have as a result of the complete fallenness of the world, and their assumption that there is no beauty in the everyday grind of work.

De Botton doesn’t stop there, though, and makes the further claim that we are now “almost exclusively amazed by ourselves” and that we “feel respect for circuit boards and pity and guilt towards glaciers” (p165).  It is evident he thinks we have moved beyond religion and God. He is determined for us to see the beauty in the man-made world, believing we have as yet failed to see our greatness as its creators.

Though it is written in a sweet and genuine way, there is a deep and underlying despair present throughout the book, and it is no more evident than in his chapter on Symons, a careers counsellor.  His portrait of the occupation is sad, as he laments that so few people investigate careers before finding themselves somehow doing something for twenty years that they only mildly enjoy, if they enjoy it at all. Symons quotes the psychologist, Abraham Maslow : “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement” (p113). De Botton seems to accept this thesis, and the crushing pessimism it evokes. He also accepts, and indeed promotes the prevailing view—at least in the modern western world—that work should fulfill us, and is “able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning” (p30).

Of course, we know this isn’t true, and this is where it is very clear that Alain de Botton is not a Christian. 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 would recommend this book to anyone who needs reminding of this and of the joy and wonder to be found in this amazing world.


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