Book Reviews: 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work' by Alain de Botton | 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' by Matthew B. Crawford

By Christopher Shea
Sunday, June 21, 2009


By Alain de Botton

Pantheon | 326 pp. $26


An Inquiry into the Value of Work

By Matthew B. Crawford

Penguin | 320 pp. $25.95

Although I am a thoroughgoing information-age worker -- freelance writer, blogger -- some of my most satisfying work in recent years has had nothing to do with my profession. I'm thinking, for example, of the weeks I spent replacing some decrepit iron pipes in the basement. Who knew plumbing could be such an intellectual puzzle (misroute the vents, flood the house with noxious gas) or that looking at plastic pipes that I had cut, fitted and glued myself could fill me with such pride?

What makes work meaningful? What kind of labor, whether for oneself or another, helps to make us complete (or saps our life)? These are the sorts of questions that first-time author Matthew B. Crawford, who runs a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond and also has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, explores in "Shop Class as Soulcraft." And they are the issues examined from a quite different vantage point by Alain de Botton, in "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work."

For those who don't know de Botton's books, the author of the bestselling "Architecture of Happiness" is a writer of long, elegant sentences and Anglo wit. Forever flirting with preciousness, he is rescued from it 87 percent of the time by his intelligence. He is not a reporter (though he reports) so much as a marvelous muser. Yet Crawford's is the better, if lumpier, text. It's the one that may upend your preconceptions about labor and, just maybe, cause you to rethink your career (or how you spend your weekends).

De Botton, for his part, says that his goal is to create a textual version of "one of those eighteenth-century cityscapes which show us people at work from the quayside to the temple," but it's even more idiosyncratic than that. The book begins with him gazing at a brontosaurian ship lumbering up the Thames, laden with consumer goods. Why, he asks, do so many of us dismiss or ignore the endeavors and networks that provide the goods that feed our material appetites?

De Botton sets out to remedy our ignorance with a series of set pieces. He flies to the Maldives and watches fishermen hook and bloodily bludgeon salmon in the Indian Ocean. Then he gets on a plane with the fish. Some 60 hours after the salmon emerged from the "aphotic brine," one of them is on the dinner table of a family in Bristol, England. Moving on, de Botton tours the headquarters of a cookie factory, marveling at the people who spend their days deciding which name ("Moments"? "Le Petit Ecolier"?), font and image will most effectively seduce harried moms at supermarkets.

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