This book was always going to be a difficult one for an author of de Botton’s background: Daddy having sold the company for £421 million, Mummy one of Britain’s ‘leading art collectors’, he himself a Cambridge double-starred first. But privilege-bashing is a dangerously easy pose, so let’s give the man a chance by examining how he gets his hands dirty.
De Botton’s extended essay takes us on ten routes through the peaks and troughs of the working world, repeatedly pointing to the consumer’s isolation from the mechanisms of production in the globalised world. Most of us pick our tuna from Sainsbury’s, not considering its tortuous journey, beginning with sudden death by the club of a Maldives fisherman. Exposing this secret life of everyday processes, de Botton casts his corrective glance over banal factories, offices and car parks. He meets some wonderful specimens of humanity in all their blinkered eccentricity; like Ian the electricity-pylon enthusiast who believes in the equal rights of pylon and cathedral.
De Botton is known for his feel-good philosophising, but this book, starting with the ambivalent title, seems weighted towards the depressing end. Many moments are described with a subtle nod to their ridiculousness; but we Cambridge students can sympathise with the monomania that makes people take biscuits seriously. Our name for biscuits is ‘study’. De Botton is scrupulous not to judge; but I was left with a singularly bitter taste. Even if the fruits of our labour disappear into oblivion, is there some value in the process? De Botton thinks so: he concludes that work’s best function is to distract us from death. I found that unsatisfying; but according to Careers Counsellor Symons, dissatisfaction is the norm.
De Botton’s writing is highly discursive, witty and sophisticated, although his lyricism can spill over into caricature. He makes frequent recourse to comparisons drawn from literature and art, unable to resist coming up for air. The book’s visual aspect is its real strong point: black and white photographs of industry, technology, commerce enliven almost every page.
Despite de Botton’s flaws, which include a strangely-confessed tendency to objectivise attractive women, he has produced a fascinating cross-section of the modern world. As a former inhabitant of the Cambridge Bubble, he is now our man on the outside.