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The Meaning of our Labour
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.