Friday, July 17, 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Vocationally, I have always struggled with the disparity between what I’m worth, and what I’m paid.
And aside from the remunerative issue, I have been consistently horrified by the great gulf that seems unspanably [and inexplicably] fixed between what I love to do, and what I spend most of my time and energy doing.
The situation, coupled with the fact that I have loved all of the other books I have read by this author, perhaps biases my review. I am a great fan of Alain De Botton. And I hate my work.
Gravitating toward The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a no-brainer!
Straight up, I loved it. And I think you should read it.

Is there any more universally… [what is the word?....] “relatable” topic than work?
Our jobs?
What is the predominant feeling that wells up within you when you think about your source of income, your workplace, your vocation, your calling?
My choice of those four designations is deliberate, because, as you assess the import of those words, if all four of them adequately describe where you spend the bulk of your weekdays, you are one of the chosen few!
You are a rarity.
You are probably deriving much “pleasure” from your work environment.
I would suggest that most of us aren’t.
Many of the people in De Botton’s book, aren’t.
Yet, many are.
I disagree with other reviewers who criticize the book, saying De Botton focuses on chagrin and resentment.
I think he cuts a fairly unbiased / disinterested, swath.
He introduces us to the painter Stephen Taylor, a man completely consumed and fulfilled by his work, even though, at the end of two years, he “has earned the equivalent of the annual salary of an unsuccessful plumber.” (p.190)
He introduces us to executives in corporations whose salaries would more than quadruple anything any of us can ever speculate on earning -- and yet one is left with a feeling approaching pity, for the emptiness, the woodenness of their lives.

De Botton delineates the process of how tuna gets from the ocean to the supermarket. [To the point of waiting in the frozen tuna aisle, and asking the lady who buys it if he and his photographer can go to her house and watch the kids eat the thing!]
How spaceships get into inner and outer space!
How the power gets to the switch on your wall.
Not only who makes the biscuits you eat, but who decides the exact font to be used on the packaging.
All of these processes involve livelihoods!

But The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is not a newspaper story.
It is a wonderful re-telling, poetic and ever-poignant -- pithy, witty, wonderful. Awe-inspiring.
And I found that the accompaniment photos were not only apropos, but artistically superb. It’s like reading Sebald. [Kudos to photographer Richard Baker for doing infinitely more than opening a shutter].

I’ve always felt that reviews should emphasize impression, rather than synopsis.
For summaries of what this book is about, there are many places one can go.
But I read the thing.
And my overwhelming feeling is that you should read it, too.


Whether you are someone who has chosen to follow your bliss like the painter Stephen Taylor, or whether you are like the accountant whose only real accomplishment after a lifetime of service is to have reached the comfortable “age of reminiscence”, which grants him the freedom to look back on all the pleasurable memories of his life and realize that these all encompassed moments when he was not working!
My own favorite chapter was entitled “Accountancy”, where, at one point De Botton said:
“For most of human history, the only instrument needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip. So long as workers had only to kneel down and retrieve stray ears of corn from the threshing-room floor or heave quarried stones up a slope, they could be struck hard and often, with impunity and benefit. But the rules of employment had to be rewritten with the emergence of tasks whose adequate performance required their protagonists to be to a significant degree content, rather than simply terrified or resigned. Once it became evident that someone who was expected to remove brain tumours, draw up binding legal documents or sell condominiums with convincing energy could not profitably be sullen or resentful, morose or angry, the mental well-being of employees commenced to be a supreme object of managerial concern.” (p.244)

As a professional "heaver of quarried stones", I was surprised to not happen upon a photo of myself among these pages.
All jokes aside, my wholehearted endorsement of this book surely has less to do with the fact that I am the current poster-boy for Unfulfilled Employment than it does with the fact that Alain De Botton is in the diametrically opposite position.
This book reaffirms my conviction that he has been, for a long while now, and is still currently, living his own vocational bliss.


Anonymous said...

I think you should read "How Starbucks Saved My Life" - amazon reference is here:

Time to get out of that warehouse!!!

Stefanie said...

I had planned to buy and read this book anyway because I like de botton very much. If I were a professional writer I'd want to be like him. heck, I think I'd like to be him, but that's something else entirely.