Though Alain de Botton is regularly accused of writing highbrow literary self-help books, that description doesn’t do justice to him—or to his engaging-yet-erudite narrative style. De Botton owes at least a small debt to the character of the beloved young schoolteacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society; like that fictional instructor, he frequently enlivens classics of philosophy and literature by pointing out how relevant they can be to our lives, as he did to great effect in the international bestseller, How Proust Can Change Your Life. De Botton does seem to want to help readers, but not by giving facile or reductive advice; rather, he talks about how the wisdom in tomes like Remembrance of Things Past and The Consolation of Philosophy can help us sort through all sorts of struggles, from quotidian agonies like trying to get by on a pittance of a salary, to major traumas like heartbreak and death.
"I wanted to write an adult version of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?" de Botton says.
Don’t let the mention of those hoary titles by Proust and Boethius scare you off. Whenever de Botton’s at the keyboard (as he was for this interview), you will hear a voice that is always conversational and inviting, often wryly hilarious—not what you might expect from a man who began his adult life by studying for a Ph.D. in French philosophy at Harvard. (He dropped out when he was 23, the same year his first book, On Love, came out. "I realized that academia might offer me neither security nor the chance to write what I wanted," he explains.) Despite his pedigree—and his penchant for referencing thinkers like Seneca and Schopenhauer—de Botton claims he’s "the opposite of an academic." Though his newest title, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, was inspired by yet another classic, it’s one more familiar to kindergarteners than to professors. "I wanted to write an adult version of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?" de Botton says.
With the ambition to create "a book that would open our eyes to the beauty, complexity, banality and occasional horror of the working world," he spent two years finding out what people in an eclectic range of industries—from career counseling to food distribution—were doing all day. Taking a photographer along with him to help document his investigations, de Botton traveled extensively, throughout England (where he lives) and beyond: to a cookie-manufacturing plant, to an entrepreneur’s expo, and even to the middle of the Indian Ocean with a group of commercial fishermen. That seafaring escapade is recounted in one of the book’s most engaging—and most pictorial—chapters, about how fresh tuna steaks get from the sea to your plate. There’s a shot of the Maldivian minister of fish; another of the boat crew playing cards; and a third of the dinner table of a London shopper who had purchased a cut of the very same tuna de Botton had seen clubbed to death a couple of days earlier.
Despite the fact that The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is so heavily reported that it feels like something of a departure from the rest of his oeuvre, de Botton’s marketing team seems (perhaps understandably) interested in capitalizing on his reputation as a guru of personal realization for Bobos. The product description on Amazon reads: "De Botton tries to answer some of the most urgent questions we can ask about work: Why do we do it? What makes it pleasurable? What is its meaning?" That summary prompted a few non-rhetorical questions of its own. I wanted to know: Does privileged, charmed de Botton—who became a worldwide phenomenon at age 27 with Proust and was raised by a multimillionaire father—really think he can relate to people stuck in 9-to-5 drudgery? Or that his book might help the average working-class hero, the average Sisyphus, the average Joe the Plumber, see the meaning in his day-to-day grind?
"My book never purports to be an advice manual," de Botton replies—and you get the feeling that it is only his much-ballyhooed politeness that keeps him from writing out the answer in exasperated capitals, with a string of exclamation points at the end. "The idea was to hold a mirror up to our working selves—and insofar as the book proves of interest, it will be in the traditional way in which books ‘help’ us: namely, by opening our eyes and expanding our sympathies and our knowledge."
Luckily, however, de Botton is insightful enough that he manages to provide some balm for the anxieties of any paycheck slave. He begins his chapter on career counseling by pointing out how odd it is, historically speaking, to think that work—work, of all things!—should make us happy on a daily basis. For thousands of years, holding down a job was akin to slavery, and it’s only relatively recently, thanks to the "bourgeois philosophers like Benjamin Franklin," that we have so built our lives—and our hopes for fulfillment—around our careers. He goes on to note that there is a certain inequity in the so-called meritocratic world we now inhabit, where "one’s status might now well be determined by one’s confidence, imagination, and ability to convince others of one’s due." (Why would that be unfair? Because some of us are simply not born with the requisite assurance, creativity, and charisma to succeed wildly!)
He even touches on our maybe-misguided modern ideas about romance, observing that there is an "unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the ... bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfillment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses."
Amen to that, dude.
However, as de Botton points out, a certain working-class view of work—which sees a job primarily as something done simply to earn enough money to get by—is getting a new lease on life, thanks to the recession. "More and more one hears the refrain, ‘It's not perfect, but at least it's a living,’" he comments. We may well be hearing that even more frequently after the public catches on to his new book—which is no labor to read at all, and not a sorrow either. Rather, it’s a pleasure.
Maura Kelly just finished her first novel. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Washington Post, Salon, Glamour, Penthouse, and other publications. She also writes a dating blog for Marie Claire.