Book review: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

First, a warning: this book is really heavy! Carrying around the hardback version has done my shoulder some serious damage…

Alain de Botton follows people in different industries to find out what makes our work lives tick. From people who work in biscuit marketing to the visitors of an aeronautical conference to an artist who has spent the last three years painting the same expanse of field to someone who spends his life observing pylons, there are endless variations of work to keep us occupied in the 21st century.

De Botton is a really engaging writer and although he doesn’t make all the jobs sound interesting (and in the case of the biscuit manufacturers, he actually had to leave the room at one point as he become overwhelmed by the pointlessness of it all), each essay is a mini insight into a world that anyone outside of that industry will never see into. It was fascinating. His writing is brilliant and also surprisingly personal and very funny, which I had not expected. He seems to have a bit of a thing for the ladies, regularly distracted by them. In the photo essay on the fishing industry, he says of one woman he meets that ‘despite cautionary tales from a range of antecedents from Gaugin to Edward Said, I am unable to wholly suppress fleeting images of a joint future with Salma…’ Ha.

Some of his comments are very negative and I wonder what the subjects of the book had to say about it when it was published. I certainly don’t think the publishing industry would come off in a particularly flattering light if subjected to the same analysis – in fact most industries probably wouldn’t! So, generally – unflattering, but incredibly interesting nonetheless. Definitely worth picking up (in paperback!!!!).

Bill Bryson is coming out with a similar type of book, where he looks at all the research and work that goes in to the every day things that surround us at home – all the invisible people behind everything we use – from forks to calculators to business cards. If it is as good at this one, I will definitely pick up a copy.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

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