The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work — Alain de Botton

This book sees de Botton travelling on a commercial fishing vessel, shadowing an accountant for a day, and accompanying an aeronautical engineering team as they prepare and launch a rocket into space, among other adventures. He takes us through each assignment and uses them to muse on how human beings use their time, and why, and how we might do it better.

I’m sure it was a lot of fun to research and write this book, and it’s pretty fun to read. At first I worried that the structure of the book — ten chapters, one occupation per chapter — would make it disjointed and shallow. But the very amusing deadpan writing style kept me reading. This book has even more wry humour than the other de Botton books I have read — there are lots of discursions and tangents from the main narrative of each chapter.

Apart from the amusing writing, there is a lot of insight in this book. I particularly enjoyed the description of a successful entrepreneur, and de Botton’s clear eyed appraisal of the man’s strengths and weaknesses. There are also a lot of photographs, which complement the text in an offbeat way.

One morning, I read a passage in this book in which de Botton compares an office worker to Edward Hopper’s moody painting New York Movie. That evening, I read a restaurant review in the NZ Herald, in which Jesse Mulligan compared his longing to return to a particularly good restaurant to the nostalgic feelings evoked by… an Edward Hopper painting. Coincidence — or fate? I wonder if there is a word in some language to describe the uncanny feeling that you are being stalked by a deceased American realist painter.

The writing in this book is finely wrought, erudite, and knowingly pretentious. A bit like this website, but better — I am only an amateur after all.

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