The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

With every sentence that Alain de Botton writes, he only reaffirms his place at the top of my short list of favorite living writers. There are few authors who are capable of writing even a single article (let alone an entire book) that is so intellectually stimulating and even fewer who can communicate in such a witty and charming style. Indeed, since it's not out of order to call de Botton a philosopher, I tend to add "poet" to that, too. While reading, I struggle with two competing desires: to devour the book in a single sitting versus slowly savoring every sentence. I ordered this as a birthday present to myself from amazon.co.uk (I prefer the British covers of de Botton's work) and while it has not unseated On Love and The Art of Travel as my favorites of his books, I was still quite pleased with The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I only wish that de Botton had spent as much time deliberating on the less tangible concepts associated with work as he did reporting the facts of specific working lives, for his eloquent arguments of a more philosophical nature are always utterly fascinating.

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton poses a number of questions about work... What is it that has driven us into our respective occupations? Do we enjoy it? Why do we keep waking up day after day to do it? What does it mean to us? What does it mean to the larger world? Are we, in fact, capable of loving what we do on a daily basis? Do we have to in order to have a meaningful life?

Of course, what's interesting is that the majority of the book is not spent wrestling with these questions... but rather, these are the questions that spurred the author towards this topic. These are the questions that might be asked in book clubs when discussing this book, and these are the questions that are truly compelling... but rather than answer them directly (as I feel his other works are at least prone to attempt), de Botton seems to leave these open. Instead of expounding on the philosophical implications of our occupational choices, he has become more of a documentarian in both word and image, with a photograph on nearly every page. These pictures of warehouses, electrical pylons, and conference booths illustrate what often comes across as a bleak beauty to scenes of people at work or the results of our labor. And so this books ends up being much more about the people he interviews and their occupations rather than de Botton's thoughts on work. He is a reporter who comes back with astute observations, but does not delve too far into analyzing particular people or groups. I wonder if it was too personal or if he felt things might be too judgmental if he drew any conclusions from specific examples. I found it interesting that he completely refrained from personal musing on his own career (beyond occasionally offering a self-deprecating comment on his own failings in comparison to, say, inventors or engineers), though he purposely focuses on jobs that aren't often in the limelight. We go through ten separate "studies" of occupations that span a broad spectrum, where de Botton speaks with those people who have found themselves performing this work on a near daily basis.

Not since Walt Whitman have I found a writer so successful at conveying the dignity of work while still leaving room for us to ask if we are truly fulfilled. As I've already noted, my only wish was that there was more Alain de Botton in this book, but I think he's produced a fascinating study that will have you spending as much time in thought about your own occupation as you spend reading this book... and for a philosopher, I think that's an excellent goal to have achieved.

Here's a few links to other reviews of the book, and below, I included a piece that Alain de Botton wrote on why he settled on this topic.


I wrote The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work to shine a spotlight on the working world. I wanted to write a book that would open our eyes to the beauty and occasional horror of the working world—and I did this by looking at 10 different industries, a deliberately eclectic range from accountancy to engineering, from biscuit manufacture to logistics.

The strangest thing about the world of work is the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy. For thousands of years, work was viewed as something to be done with as rapidly as possible and escaped in the imagination through alcohol or religion. Aristotle was the first of many philosophers to state that no one could be both free and obliged to earn a living. A more optimistic assessment of work had to wait until the eighteenth century and men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, who for the first time argued that one's working life could be at the centre of any desire for happiness. It was during this century that our modern ideas about work were formed—at the very same time as our modern ideas about love and marriage took shape.

In the pre-modern age, it was assumed that no one could try to be in love and married: marriage was something one did for purely commercial reasons. Things were going well if you maintained a tepid friendship with your spouse. Meanwhile, love was something you did with your mistress, with pleasure untied to the responsibilities of child-rearing. Yet the new philosophers of love argued that one might actually aim to marry the person one was in love with rather than just have an affair. To this unusual idea was added the even more peculiar notion that one might work both for money and to realise one's dreams, an idea that replaced the previous assumption that the day job took care of the rent and anything more ambitious had to happen in one's spare time.

We are the heirs of these two very ambitious beliefs: that you can be in love and married, and in a job and having a good time. It has become as impossible for us to think that you could be out of work and happy as it had once seemed impossible for Aristotle to think that you could be employed and human. Thus is born The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. —Alain de Botton

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