Alain de Botton has long been a hero of mine. He essentially created a modern genre which is sometimes called the "idea book." The "idea book" brings difficult academic research to a wide audience, to change their lives in a practical way (see Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide, and Laurie Maguire's Where There's a Will, There's a Way: Or, All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Shakespeare. When I set out to market my own self-help book based on the work and life of Virginia Woolf , I knew the project was only possible because of de Botton's success).
In his late 20's, after having published three more fictional books, de Botton set out on a tough project: He would make Marcel Proust, the author of one of the longest novels in history, relevant to everyday living. In turn, he wrote his bestseller How Proust Can Change Your Life, with chapters like "How to Suffer Successfully," "How to Be a Good Friend," and "How to Put Down Books." His work--making Proust practical--was poo-poo'd by some (overly) serious scholars, but it brought "important" ideas to life by taking the quotation marks away from important. De Botton writes smart nonfiction that changes the way we love, eat, sleep, and make friends.
His latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work , which came out last June, moved me more than any of his others. I don't usually push books on family and friends, but I've pushed this one on to many. It feels a lot like a new genre: a lot like a poem, a lot like a magazine article, certainly a research piece on the modern workplace. It is a love song about how we go to work and how industries run. De Botton doesn't linger on the most-frequently cited careers like medicine, teaching, or retail sales; instead, he tours through those important industries that sustain us even as we forget them: the shipping industry, electrical infrastructure, T.V. station satellites. He also takes us to the mundane, showing the pathetic and glorious there: the way one company in England mass-manufactures cookies to a convention of entrepreneurs, each with his dream.
De Botton's main objective has always been to make large ideas accessible. In that spirit, he recently opened a book store-slash-psychotherapy office in London which offers classes on topics like loving, having conversation, and dying. He started a production company to turn inquisitive books into films, and he founded a company that builds comforting, beautiful homes. Below is an interview I recently conducted online with de Botton, in which he explores what it takes to make a literary idea practical, what loneliness is, and why he felt a dire need to write about work. I am publishing the first part of this interview here and will continue it next week.
Simons/Barnes & Noble:
You have had a great career disclosing the practical value of intellectual ideas. As early as How Proust Can Change Your Life, you helped inspire a publishing trend in the U.S. which we sometimes refer to in terms of the "idea book": books that rescue practical ideas from the dusty halls of academic research. But while lots of American authors are profitably punching out "idea books," you've seemed to engage with real life in more exciting ways than most. You started Seneca Productions, a company that makes smart and accessible T.V. shows; you helped create The School of Life, a venue for life-learning and therapy in London; and you were a founding member of Living Architecture, an organization that aims to create beautiful buildings for rent. Do you feel as if you've moved from books in relative isolation to an increasingly social focus over the course of your career?
I've been dogged in my career by what feels to me like a very vulgar concern: that books should make a practical difference to people's lives. I lack the aesthetic confidence of some of my contemporaries: the belief that what one is doing by writing is of a priori importance. I am inclined to great self-doubt and wonder at the purpose of my work.
So a few years ago, partly as a result of having undergone a very fruitful course of therapy and partly as a result of having studied the admirable career of Dave Eggers, I realized that I could quite easily engage with the more practical world if I really wanted. There was no need to spend my life solely in my study.
I remember drawing up a list of my foremost concerns. This sounds absurd in the cold light of day, but on the piece of paper, I wrote: WISDOM and BEAUTY. In other words, what I really care about is trying to help the world to become a wiser place and a more beautiful place. How on earth to try and achieve these goals?
I started by looking at wisdom - and I was drawn to the example of the schools of wisdom of Ancient Greece and Rome, where philosophers would teach members of the general public about the principles of satisfaction and the root causes of misery. Where were the modern equivalents of these schools? I found that modern universities are not really engaged with such ambitions. If you went to any university and said that you had come to study ‘how to live' or ‘how to become a better and wiser person', you would be politely shown the door - if not the way to an asylum. Universities nowadays see it as their job to train you either in a very specific career (like law, medicine) or to give you a grounding in arts subjects like literature or history - but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague and unexamined notion that three years studying medieval literature may be a good idea.
So with some colleagues, I helped to start The School of Life in a modest shop and teaching space near King's Cross in London. On the menu of our school, you won't find subjects like ‘philosophy' ‘French' ‘History' and ‘the Classics'. You'll find courses in ‘Death,' ‘Marriage' ‘Choosing a career' ‘Ambition' ‘Child Rearing' or ‘Changing your world.' Along the way, you will learn about a lot of the books and ideas that traditional universities serve up, but you are unlikely ever to get bored, you'll make friends - and you'll come away with a different take on the world. There's even a bookshop in the school which does away with the traditional categories in bookshops like fiction or history and just sells books according to particular problems. So we've got a shelf titled ‘For those who worry at night' and another titled ‘How to be happy though married.' We call the shop a ‘chemist for the soul.'
It's always tempting to stick at standing on the sidelines complaining about a problem, but it's perhaps one better to try to make a change yourself. The School of Life is a small attempt to alter the way that learning gets done and to remind us that culture, if handled rightly, should actually feel entirely relevant and exciting and always make life more manageable and interesting.
As for Living Architecture, this picks up on the second of my concerns for BEAUTY. The idea came to me shortly after I published my book, The Architecture of Happiness . The book was well and widely received - and yet I worried that its messages about beauty in architecture would be entirely overlooked by property developers and others in the construction industry.
Of all art forms, architecture can be the hardest to experience directly. While there are many outstanding modern buildings, they aren't generally in places in which one has the opportunity to spend much time. The great civic structures (airports, museums, offices) are merely for passing through, while the modern houses that exist are almost all in private hands and cannot be visited. The dream of experiencing great contemporary architecture at close hand is a common one, but a range of practical hurdles conspires against this wish in all but the most tenacious. For the majority of the population, modern architecture is therefore something to be read about in newspapers and seen on television, but almost never properly lived in.
So Living Architecture is a new arts organization that is building a series of modern habitable buildings of extraordinary architectural interest and beauty in the United Kingdom - which will be available for rent for week-long stays. Visitors will come into contact with great architecture in the most intimate of ways, by passing a series of days and nights around it, instead of meeting it solely through the distorting lens of a magazine or museum-style tour. The organization hopes to have a profound impact on the perception of contemporary architecture and to be a beacon of excellence across the world. My own role within it has been to help identify the architects we are using, which include Peter Zumthor, Michael Hopkins and MVRDV.
Your latest book, The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work, moves between cynicism about modern industry (e.g. suggesting that snack foods frustrate our desires more than they soothe them) and awe for our world (e.g. suggesting that electric cables are art). When writing this book, did you feel more like the critic or the praise singer for modernity? More simply: Are we modern people in a relatively exciting space, or a really bad one?
You'll be frustrated at me for saying this, but I feel I sit squarely in the middle of this debate. Work has its definite sorrows and pleasures - and I wanted my book to sing of the pleasure and mourn the sorrow.
In the course of writing my book, one of the more consoling ideas I discovered was just how rare and historically ambitious is the modern idea that our work should deliver happiness to us on a daily basis. The strangest thing about the world of work isn't the long hours we put in or the fancy machines we use to get it done; the most extraordinary aspect of the work scene is in the end psychological rather than economic or industrial. It has to do with our attitudes to work, more specifically the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy, that it should be at the centre of our lives and our expectations of fulfillment. The first question we tend to ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were, but what they do - presuming thereby to discover the core of their identity.
When work is not going well, it's useful to remember that our identities stretch beyond what is on the business card, that we were people long before we became workers - and will continue to be human once we have put our tools down forever. As an entirely secular person, I'm struck by St Augustine's injunction that it is a sin to judge a man by his status or position in society. In other words, when work is not going well, we need to remember to distinguish our sense of worth from the work we do.
Simons: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work does a beautiful job of mismatching form and content. Your subject matter is the modern work environment, which has alienated and often bored us. But you wrote the book with real lyricism--a little like one of those eighteenth-century cityscapes which" span the vast landscape, as you said, or as "a hymn to the...modern workplace." How did you land on the voice of this book? Was poetry the needed counterbalance to the technical lingo of the grey office cubicle?
De Botton:It was definitely as struggle to land on the voice for this book, because so few writers have ever written about the world of work without sounding either soberly technical or else angry and cynical.
While the workplace of course features abuse (but no more so than marriages or schools), it is also an arena for beauty, skill and an awe-inspiring vision of our species.
So I felt frustrated by the dearth of writing about work. If a proverbial alien landed on earth and tried to work out what human beings did with their time simply on the evidence of what is recorded in the literature sections of an average quality bookstore, he or she would come away thinking that we devote ourselves almost exclusively to leading complex relationships, squabbling with our parents and occasionally murdering people. But what is too often missing is what we really get up to outside of catching up on sleep, which is going to work in the office, retail space or factory.
It used to be a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life. From Balzac to Zola, Dickens to Kafka, they evoked the dynamism and the beauty, the horror and the tedium of the workplace. Their books covered the same territory as is today featured at copious length in the financial pages of newspapers or in the breathless commentaries of the 24 hour newscasters, but their interest was not primarily financial. My goal was to convey the human side of commerce, where money is only one actor in a complex drama about our ambitions and reversals. The reasons for the literary neglect not to hard to guess at. Firstly, there is a problem of experience. Young writers are always advised to write of what they know about, and such is the specialized and dedicated nature of the modern economy that it can be very hard to know of anything besides what it's like to be a writer. Our authors know about casual jobs taken while waiting for a manuscript to be looked at in New York, but they are less familiar with a 40 year long view down the tunnel of a career.
To compound the issue, it's become extraordinarily challenging to get into businesses in order to write about them. Most now employ squadrons of PR staff, who let in only handpicked financial journalists and assiduously reject suspect poets or novelists who might cause trouble. When writing my book, I had twenty rejections for every one acceptance. I was asked if I might sign non-disclosure forms and later send my text in to be checked by in-house lawyers (I politely refused).
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