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on 7 April 2009
Something about Alain de Botton's writing captivates me. Though great chunky paragraphs of this photo essay are taken up with things which are banal on the surface like detailed descriptions of how biscuits are manufactured or the workings of electricity lines, the author's pithy observations about the individuals involved and his asides about the nature of being are engrossing. This author investigates an eclectic range of professions such as tuna fishing, career counselling, painting and accountancy. He begins the book by pondering the complex network of work involved which delivers to us goods in our everyday lives and how we are largely blithely unaware of these goods' origins. He then investigates a series of professions as a base point, engaging with the professionals involved in order to try to understand how this labour relates to their place in the world. The result is a sort of travelogue, each section containing a large amount of photographs to accompany the text, created with the help of photographer Richard Baker. Many of these pictures are beautiful and poignant in themselves, adding an even greater depth and understanding to the text which runs alongside them.

Many of the people the author encounters are treated with a good deal of sympathy and one feels his observations to be largely accurate based on his personal impressions of them. I grew to feel admiration, respect and envy for people who are emphatically engaged in their professions and passionate about the importance of their labour. However, at some points de Botton's prose lapse almost too far into a novelistic approach so that individuals he meets are fitted into the author's schematic understanding of certain workers' reality. Thus he might make presumptions about real people by speculating about their consciousness and how they feel about their position in the world. For instance, he summarizes the end of the day for an employee from an accountancy's advisory services and concludes how this man contemplates what has been "difficult, unnecessary and regrettable" about the effort of his labour for that day. The author doesn't specify whether he gleaned this understanding of this individual's inner-existence from a revealing interview or following him home to unobtrusively observe his private life. But one can't help but feel some liberties were taken. This makes me wonder why this author who is so brilliant at investigating the liminal spaces of our existence and the most crucial issues of our lives doesn't write more novels like his first published works.

The author also touchingly interjects elements of himself in the book. This might include finding a likeness of his father in a portrait of the president of the Maldives or a melancholic mood he falls into following the launch of a satellite into space. However, though always taking himself and his enquiries seriously, one can feel a great deal of humour laden in his emphatic pondering especially when he relates this to people he encounters. At one point he desperately asks a girl working on a document about brand performance why "in our society the greatest sums of money so often tend to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things" and at another point in the Majove desert implores the groundskeeper of an airfield populated by dilapidated airplanes to grant him closer access out of his "preoccupation with the remnants of collapsing civilisations." What is so engaging about de Botton's style is how evidently immediate and crucial the concerns he writes about are to the author himself. Yet, at the same time, he understands that life shouldn't be taken too seriously. This makes the book very personal and enjoyable as well as including profound thoughts about the nature of being. Life is full of questions and, even if no satisfactory answers can be found, Alain de Botton is bravely determined to at least explore the meaning of it all with great eloquence and wit.
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on 19 January 2011
I admit I have a love/hate relationships with De Botton's literature, in the main, with the exception of his excellent Status anxiety I find his content ambling and off topic in a way only a philosopher could ever get away with. Yet what I love is his use of vocabulary to make his writing a comfort blanket of a read. The words chosen are soft and rounded, seductively spoken throughout the pages to cam and entrance the reader. You will find no abrasive language with Botton, none is needed, only beautiful literature here and written in a way that disguises his depth of philosophical insights as though allowing the reader to peek inside a secret window of his life.

One chapter for example is all about biscuits, even a dunker like myself would find reading a whole chapter about biscuits a terrible bore, but Botton doesn't try to persuade the reader to feign interest in the chapter, or even in biscuits as a whole, rather the writing style is as seductive as allowing expensive chocolate to slowly melt in the mouth so the taste buds savour every moment. When reading the biscuit chapter I was switched off to the content in favour of the seductive haze of the words, the descriptive values, the whole structure from sentence to paragraph allowed me to sail through the chapter and indeed the entire book' feeling completely relaxed and entirely enveloped in his work.

You should read this book not only because of the great philosophical insights to be gained, but also for the distinct pleasure of reading quality literature and raising us from the so much trashy literature that litters the shelves of once reputable dealers who now just want to cash in on the latest pop. culture books.

A fantastic read, highly recommended!
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on 2 May 2009
I've read all of de Botton's published work and many of his books can leave you wanting still. I eagerly awaited the release of this one thinking that it would blow me away the same way Consolations of Philosophy or Status Anciety did, however I quickly found myself becoming disappointed.
Rather than examine the reader or society as a whole, de Botton takes various occupations and work places and rips them apart, exposing the innards for us all to see and read. Many of them, such as shipping and distrubution were not exactly my favourite and I found myself putting the book down - a first for a de Botton!
However there are some interesting points made throughout. His time with a therapist helps us to realise that we are often stuck in jobs that were given to us at a time when we never really knew what we wanted from life or what was offered so we stick to these. I found myself having an entirely new work ethic after reading that particular chapter. You learn to appreciate the beauty in little things around you which is a trait common in all his books.
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on 3 January 2011
I am a fan of ADB's books and count "the Architecture of Happiness" and "Status Anxiety" as amongst my favourites. I enjoyed this one, but more for the journey than than the destination. It is written with ADB's usual, highly engaging, style and includes the kind of the insights and witticisms that I've come to expect from him. As such, it never fell short of being an interesting read and I would encourage everyone to read it.

At the same time, though, in some ways it left me feeling as unfulfilled as many of lives that he describes. (Perhaps that's the point?) The sorrows outweigh heavily the pleasures, although that's no doubt more a reflection of the subject matter than the author. My main disappointment was the lack of analysis. The book's conclusions seem to be that:

(i) the mundane, absurdly specialised and trivial things we do are no different from what we always did insofar as they provide us with the material means to survive; and
(ii) if we didn't occupy ourselves with work, we'd have bigger things to worry about, namely the onmipresence of death and the pointlessness of our existence.

I agree with Alain on both counts, but was hoping for much more. The other small disappointments for me were the fact that ADB seems not to have been able to resist the temptation to scorn some of his subjects and also his obvious detachment from the world he was describing. Both of these issues caused me to ask myself for the first time quite who is ADB? My extensive research (i.e. a quick look at Wikipedia) tells me that ADB is fortunate enough to have a substantial family legacy waiting in the wings should he need it and that has slightly coloured my view of this book as a whole.

On the whole though, another enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Keep up the good work Alain...
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on 12 July 2013
Alain de Botton has decided to take up an extremelly large and daunting project - nothing less than attempting to assign meaning to the daily grind faced by the modern worker. Despite failing to do this (I don't think any philosopher, living or dead, can lay claim to this impossible feat) the book is not without worth.

What I personally enjoyed was being given a detailed and often photographic insight into a myriad of professions, whose workings I never could have pictured. It was very interesting to be told the story of the painter, who had spent years and years painting the same tree; there are certainly some inspiring stories of human endeavour and self-sacrifice to be had. If you read the free extract on amazon, you cannot help being drawn in by de Botton's beautiful and observent writing style - I found myself touched when he comments on the lack of interest between two workers in their exchage at the shipping port; why do we so often miss out on so much potential information through a habitual lack of interest?

After having said what I enjoyed about the book, I am finding it difficult to state in words why I cannot rate it higher than three stars. Perhaps I expected something different, more concrete (I myself am just starting out on the career ladder.) I wanted to gain something from this book that I don't think it can offer; it functions more as a work of creative writing than a guide to the world of work. Maybe it is because of his style; de Botton can embellish even the most boring and mundane subject. This is a book that requires much engagement on a personal level and, for me, his philosophical failure tarnishes the whole experience.

The Art of Travel I found to be much more stimulating
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on 12 July 2009
With all due respect to Alain I have found that if you read one book by him then you have basically read them all. I thoroughly enjoyed Art of Travel, I then read Status Anxiety and felt the style of writing was very much the same through breaking up the issue into component parts, analysing these parts with or without real life examples which allows the reader to then draw upon his/her own experiences to conclude.

I really wanted something more from this book to demonstrate that Alain is not a 'one trick pony' but it failed to deliver quite comprehensively and I really wish Alain, as an intelligent writer, would address this.

If this is your first purchase by Alain then go for it, if not then I feel you may be disappointed.
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on 25 June 2014
It's a nice piece of work but shows to much evidence of someone who's taken a cursory glance at someone else's story, vaguely picking up on what their lives are like and then leave unfortunately judgmental views and reading into people's lives the very private thoughts he can't possibly begin to know.
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on 12 April 2010
I like de Botton's books, and I really enjoyed this one too. It's not hard going philosophy, but more of a situationist look at the world. It revolves around a number of 'case studies' including a biscuit factory, a multinational accountacy firm and an entrepreneur fair; and takes you through de Botton's thought process and points out the intricacies of life. It does bring in philosophical ideas and comments on the things being seen, but not in a polemic and dogmatic way. It does nudge you to a certain way of thinking, but doesn't overpower you and allows you to decide for your self if the world of work has gone wrong.

It is very easy to read and is complemented by a number of photos about the journey de Botton takes (so it isn't 336 pages of writing, it's somewhere between 2/3 and 1/2 that probably). I enjoyed the photos, although they are very 'documentary' in style and not beautiful without the text to accompany them (which helps you appreciate them).

Overall a good book, not excellent, but worth reading if you have enjoyed de Botton before.
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on 24 June 2009
I felt like ADB was looking for something to write about and didn't have anything in mind when he sat down to write this book.

Piecemeal; disjointed and often stretching to far to show philosophical depth in much of the content where it simply did not exist.

His other bworks are far better, if this is your first reading of ADB I suggest checking out "The architecture of happiness" which is a much better example of (his) philosophical inquiry of the world around us.
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on 19 November 2010
This is a great book, well written and thoughtful. Alain raises points that have certainly gone through my mind at various times. What I found good about Alain's book is that he manages to take all of these points, discuss them, bond them and cohere them into a meaningful observation on modern day working life. It is compelling reading if you work for a large organisation.

I should explain maybe that I'm a professional engineer, so maybe see some of his points from a different perspective to other potential readers. I've lent the book to my dad now (retired, used to work as a finance auditor for the Council) and he's reading it avidly too - and he NEVER reads books!

Hope this review is useful to you.
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