Taking the Biscuit

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

Books Modern Life Philosophy

This well-written book is misnamed: it is not about the pleasures and sorrows of work. It is about Alain de Botton. It consists of a series of very clearly and elegantly written meditations sparked by his encounters with the people, and sometimes the objects, associated with a number of different occupations, including biscuit manufacture, painting, pylon engineering, accountancy and tuna-fishing.

This is not to say that there aren’t some interesting insights along the way-there are. I had no idea, for instance, that swans frequently fly into pylons because they can’t see anything directly in front of them. Their eyes are on the sides of their heads, which gives them perfect peripheral vision, but means they are liable to fly straight into pylons.

He is writing as a “philosopher”, in the widest sense of the term. It means that his fondness for paradox usually triumphs over the more mundane task of providing information and explanation. He is a Romantic, which may be the source of the book’s fundamental problem – one of Romanticism’s errors is the belief that the self is more interesting than any object in the external universe. Because it actually isn’t, it is very hard for anyone to spin interesting prose merely out of their own spontaneous observations. De Botton regards the fact that he hasn’t devoted his life to becoming an expert about anything as a great advantage, as all Romantics do. But you normally have to know quite a lot about a particular sphere of endeavour in order to be able to say anything valuable about it. You have to be a Goethe or a Samuel Johnson for your observations on things you know very little about to be interesting. And not even de Botton’s publisher would put him in that league.

For instance, he has what could have been a fascinating chapter that explores how the tuna steak bought at your local supermarket gets there. He goes on a fishing boat in the Maldives which catches the fish, not with a net but a line – supermarkets promise “line-caught” tuna, and that is true – and he visits the factory where the fish are gutted and chopped into the slabs that will, only a few hours later, appear for sale at supermarkets in Britain. But his discussion of the mechanics of the process stops just as it is getting interesting. There is nothing on the economics of supermarket products such as tuna. There is nothing about how the price of tuna is fixed or what percentage of the price is the result of transporting it from thousands of miles away. There is not even a pause for a moment’s reflection about whether it is fair that the fishermen should be so poor and the people working in the supermarket, not to mention the managers and the buyers who have arranged the deal, so (relatively) rich.

The closest de Botton gets to the topic of the justice of the economic arrangements he has observed is when he meets a woman purchasing tuna at her local supermarket, and he “tells her about Karl Marx’s theory of alienation as defined in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844“. But that’s it: the brandishing of Marx’s name and the title of one of his books leads nowhere and does nothing at all except draw attention to the fact that de Botton can refer to Marx’s tome – and the woman he is talking to can’t.

That incident illustrates his tendency to reveal a sense of his own superiority. Perhaps that sense of superiority is justified, but it doesn’t help him to understand what makes accountants and entrepreneurs (for example) tick. Despite several attempts not to, he can’t conceal his contempt for the people who spend their lives thinking up names for biscuits and ways to market them. “The minders of the Ginger Nut and the Rich Tea, of the Jaffa Cake and the Moment,” he claims disdainfully, “resembled a flock of patient, grave-faced courtiers ministering to the needs of a nursery of wilful emperors.” You get the impression that he thinks the only difference between the two is that “the minders” of biscuits are involved in a much more futile task: the courtiers will at least deal with an adult emperor, who will be grand and noble, while those involved with the marketing of biscuits are doomed to lives of utter meaninglessness.

He’s fond of noting the gulf between the humdrum existence of the people he meets and the grand and inspiring lives of the ancient Greeks or the cathedral-builders of the Middle Ages or some other grand historical figure or practice that can be invoked to indicate the triviality of the present-day occupation he is contemplating.

It can be an effective rhetorical device, but it has to be used sparingly. De Botton is not sparing, with the result that by the end of the book it has long since lost its force. To be told that Mojave, in California, doesn’t have a centre “where citizens could gather for fellowship, javelin contests and philosophical debate, as they had done, according to most historical accounts, in Athens in the age of Pericles” doesn’t help you understand anything about Mojave, or Periclean Athens. Once again, you get the sneaking suspicion that the only reason it is there at all is to demonstrate that de Botton has a range of cultural reference that the people he meets do not.

It is all frustrating, because de Botton clearly has a powerfully incisive intelligence, which, if he applied it to something other than his own self, would result in a great deal of insight and illumination. As it is, this book reads as if written by someone who is not really trying: he knows he can do very well without exercising himself too hard, so he doesn’t bother. You can’t blame him for that, of course. But I hope for his next book, he writes about topics that require him to do a little more homework.