May 18, 2009
Jack Covert Selects: Jack Covert Selects - The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton, Pantheon Books, 320 Pages, $26.00, Hardcover, June 2009, ISBN 9780375424441
In 2006 I reviewed a collection of essays about transportation called Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee. A long-distance trucker, a crew pushing a barge on the river, and lobsters making the trek across country all populate that fine book, one of my picks for best of that year. What I liked about that book—its fine writing and a unique viewpoint—draws me to this book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Both authors have an innate ability to find the beauty in the ordinary. In the case of UK writer Alain de Botton, he uses his talent to show the good and the not-so-good in the work people do.
The people and jobs represented in this book are real, not the extraordinary or the extreme. It's just people doing their jobs. The use of photography throughout the book helps to reinforce the realism the author is aiming to convey through his reporting. And de Botton pulls no punches. In the first chapter, we discover that when tuna are caught, they must be killed quickly or the blood in their system will darken the flesh and reduce the value. The author follows the fishermen and then the transport of the fish through an amazing food distribution center in the supermarket. The featured occupations range from the aforementioned fishermen to a painter and a career counselor. Seeing these links appear before our eyes as we read is like seeing invisible ink become visible. We are suddenly smarter for what has been revealed to us.
Alain de Botton is not only a reporter, however. He studies and comments on the subject of work throughout the book. In the following passage, the author ruminates on how work has evolved over time and what role it plays in our personal fulfillment.
However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most powerful feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. All societies have had work at their center; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something more than a punishment or penance. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariable pass through the gates of remunerative employment.
This kind of insightful commentary found throughout the book will inspire you to reflect on how work—both the pleasures and the sorrows—defines you and, perhaps, will also remind you that almost everyone on this planet, no matter what it is they do, has something in common with one another—work.