Joy and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton is an exploration of the joys and perils of the modern workplace. Through a combination of wit and wisdom, de Botton takes readers on a journey around a range of occupations, from rocket science to biscuit manufacture, in search of what makes jobs either fulfilling or soul-destroying. The book contains over a hundred original images commissioned from the great documentary photographer Richard Baker.

The main themes of the book are the specialization of labor, the production of superfluous goods, our removal from the sources of what we consume, the detachment of meaning from work, and the elusiveness of self-fulfillment.

De Botton explores these themes through his musings on the subliminal desires tapped by advertising slogans used for dessert snacks, anecdotes about middle level managers, and contrasts between the fate of a waiter in an executive boardroom and an executive himself.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work provides readers with a guide to the vicious anxieties and enticing hopes thrown up by our journey through the working world. It is a celebration and investigation of an activity as central to a good life as love – but which we often find remarkably hard to reflect on properly.

Useful Takeaways

  • The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is an exploration of the joys and perils of the modern workplace.
  • The main themes of the book are the specialization of labor, the production of superfluous goods, our removal from the sources of what we consume, the detachment of meaning from work, and the elusiveness of self-fulfillment.
  • The book provides readers with a guide to the vicious anxieties and enticing hopes thrown up by our journey through the working world.
  • It is a celebration and investigation of an activity as central to a good life as love – but which we often find remarkably hard to reflect on properly.

What I Liked

The most common question (in America, at least) among strangers, and acquaintances (and friends!) is what do you do? I love that this book tackles that question head on. So much of what we say we do is performative rather than accurate. I love that this book dives deep into what people actually do during their 2000+ hours per year at work.

The photographs are an excellent addition and make the book this odd mix between a coffee table reference book and a reading book.

His focus on post-industrial work was right on in 2011 and has only become more true into the 2020s. Work is weird, but also makes sense?

What I Did Not Like

Not a whole lot – it’s a great book. Like all of de Botton’s work, it’s a bit earnest, melancholic, and contemplative. You sort of have to buy into that vibe full-on or else it can be self-serious and a bit pedantic.

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