De Botton has set out to write “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace”. His book is also an investigative report into our highly industrialized, synchronized and globalized civilization. As de Botton says, we live our days surrounded by machines and processes “of which we have only the loosest grasp”. Is specialization of labour making for a life of dignity, increased prosperity, and independence, or are we being turned invisibly into cogs in the wheel, alienated, as Marx argued, not just from the very goods and services we produce but also from each other? What is the ever-expanding reach of the hyperbolic language of advertising and PR-speak doing to language itself, to our capacity to trust in words? What is globalization doing to our awareness of the local and its specific rhythms? These are some of the questions taken up by de Botton.
Armed with a photographer (the book has about a hundred black-and-white photographs), de Botton sets out to explore activities as diverse as fishing in the Maldives and cargo shipping, career counselling and entrepreneurship. His study of supermarkets suggests to him that, even as our access to goods from around the world has grown enormously, our understanding of their origins and history has shrunk. “We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods," he remarks, "as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.”
Certainly there is plenty of wonder in de Botton’s narration. Here he is on that most unromantic of places, the industrial warehouse:
If only security concerns were not so paramount in the imagination of its owners, the warehouse would make a perfect tourist destination, for observing the movement of lorries and products in the middle of the night induces a mood of distinctive tranquillity, it magically stills the demands of the ego and corrects any danger of looming too large in one's own imagination. That we are each surrounded by millions of other human beings remains a piece of inert and unevocative data, failing to dislodge us from a self-centred day-to-day perspective, until we take a look at a stack of ten thousand ham-and-mustard sandwiches, all wrapped in identical plastic casings, assembled in a factory in Hull, made out of the same flawless cottony-white bread, and due to be eaten over the coming two days by an extraordinary range of fellow citizens which these sandwiches promptly urge us to make space for in our inwardly focused imaginations.Sitting in the cockpit of a commercial plane, de Botton notes how the open sky is revealed, through the flight instruments, “as a lattice of well-marked lanes, intersections, lay-bys, junctions and beacon signals”—it is almost like a road. Following a painter who has spent years in a wheat field in England “repeatedly painting the same oak tree under a range of different lights and weathers”, de Botton comes to the conclusion that “there is an impractical side to human nature, particularly open to making sacrifices for the sake of creating objects that are more graceful and intelligent than we normally manage to be.” At a biscuit manufacturing company, he learns the British biscuit market is technically divided into five categories of biscuit, and does not know whether to be amused or distressed by one high executive’s contention that “biscuits are nowadays a branch of psychology, not cooking”. Of course, the same could be said today about many other consumer goods.
De Botton is by no means a Luddite or killjoy. He is willing to believe, and frequently attests to the fact that human invention and initiative is praiseworthy and on occasion beautiful. What he wants to do is engage with, or recover the possibility of, attitudes and processes related to labour which once existed but to which we may have now become oblivioys. If working and loving are the two most significant activities in life, it might be said that de Botton wants work to contain within itself the possibility of transcendence just as love does.
And here is a recent essay by de Botton on the lack of engagement with the working lives of people in contemporary fiction, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Data-Entry Supervisor". De Botton claims: "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." But I would be less certain of this kind of distinction than he is. Indeed, the criticism that he makes of contemporary writers vis-a-vis Balzac, Dickens, etc, is, in fact, the very criticism that George Orwell makes very powerfully of Dickens himself in his splendid essay "Charles Dickens":
Dickens has no difficulty in introducing the common motives, love, ambition, avarice, vengeance and so forth. What he does not noticeably write about, however, is work. [...]One might apply Orwell's observation that "Dickens never writes about agriculture and writes endlessly about food" all the way back to de Botton, though, and say that is is precisely this gulf in the awareness of production as compared to consumption that he is trying to bridge in his book.
In Dickens's novels anything in the nature of work happens off-stage. The only one of his heroes who has a plausible profession is David Copperfield, who is first a shorthand writer and then a novelist, like Dickens himself. With most of the others, the way they earn their living is very much in the background.[...]
Dickens sees human beings with the most intense vividness, but sees them always in private life, as ‘characters’, not as functional members of society; that is to say, he sees them statically. [...] As soon as he tries to bring his characters into action, the melodrama begins. He cannot make the action revolve round their ordinary occupations; hence the crossword puzzle of coincidences, intrigues, murders, disguises, buried wills, long-lost brothers, etc. etc. [...]
With the doubtful exception of David Copperfield (merely Dickens himself), one cannot point to a single one of his central characters who is primarily interested in his job. His heroes work in order to make a living and to marry the heroine, not because they feel a passionate interest in one particular subject. Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, is not burning with zeal to be an architect; he might just as well be a doctor or a barrister. The feeling ‘This is what I came into the world to do. Everything else is uninteresting. I will do this even if it means starvation’, which turns men of differing temperaments into scientists, inventors, artists, priests, explorers and revolutionaries — this motif is almost entirely absent from Dickens's books. He himself, as is well known, worked like a slave and believed in his work as few novelists have ever done. But there seems to be no calling except novel-writing (and perhaps acting) towards which he can imagine this kind of devotion.
Last, here are two essays on Indian writers (both published this year, one in English and the other in translation) who have written with insight about the life of manual labour and of petty trading respectively: Mridula Koshy and Sankar.