40 thoughts on “Review of Alain de Botton’s “Pleasures and Sorrows of Work””

  1. My father once tried to explain to me that there are two kinds of jobs: blue collar and white collar. He was blue collar, and proud of it, and hoped the same for me. In his retirement, I tried to explain to him that there was now a third kind of job: pink collar. After some discussion, he said he didn’t understand the difference between pink and white collar jobs. I conceded his point, but told him one difference was that white collars made more money, and played golf in their spare time, and often even during work, if their collars were starch white, while pink collars went home and had to cook dinner and give the kids a bath. He said pink collars sounded like day laborers (except the dinner and bath parts), by which he meant unskilled labor… It’s too bad de Botton’s book isn’t better, because the need for the discussion is huge, i.e. how we live our lives, how we judge the man from his apparel, or from his occupation. Thoreau advised caution when considering enterprises requiring a new suit of clothes. But Cage said it’s not irritating to be where one is; it’s only irritating to think one would rather be someplace else, to which Thoreau’s reply might be his yes, most men lead lives of quiet desperation.

  2. Thanks, Joe. In his new book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford has some very interesting things to say about the jobs you're referring to as "pink collar," and I hope to say more about his book soonish.

  3. I really like the review. Even though I haven't read the book (nor anything of Botton's but "On Love"), you captured the almost-inescapable pomposity of the project well.

  4. Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as 'nice' in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It's only fair for your readers (nice people like Joe Linker and trusting souls like PAB) to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

  5. I'm a huge fan of what work of de Botton's I have read, and I sincerely suspect the negativity of this review is merely the result of thinking differently than de Botton. I suspect that for many, even most people, his work holds little value. On the other hand, I don't think it any less valuable as a result of that, for those of us who do value it, value it greatly. I hold few possessions dearer than my first de Botton book, The Art of Travel, acquired at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris.

    On the other hand, I was absolutely shocked to see how you responded, Alain. From the spirit of your writing I would've figured you would've had a bit more insight and maturity than this; I would've suspected you could've seen that — perhaps — the reviewer just thinks differently than you and those who appreciate your work. I do appreciate that it must seem like a tragic loss of publicity, but I suspect much more of your publicity is really word of mouth. Don't rely on old media reviewers, or everyone to think your work is great. Instead of trying to convince everyone, you can just speak to those who already want to listen.

    That's all I've got.

  6. Ezekiel, I appreciate your words. The reason I was led to respond to this review – and I have never done something like this before – is the sheer vindictive lunacy of the accusations levelled against me. My response may seem deranged, but only if you hold in mind two things: the book I've written and what the reviewer said about it. The gap is so large that this goes way beyond a casual and quite understandable case of a reviewer not liking a book. Everyone is allowed their own taste and I'd be the last person to force a consensus. However, there's a point at which a review becomes so angry, cruel and mean-spirited that perspective just disappears and one is into new and uncharted terrain. I'm responding to this review as a way of proposing that forgiveness is perhaps not always the only option when the provocation has been enormous.

  7. Mr. Crain, I'm afraid your review only seems to indicate that you missed the point of Alain de Botton's latest work — and indeed, that you miss the point of a great deal of his work. Certainly, de Botton is a bit more of a documentarian in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work than you might usually find him in his more philosophical pieces, but the objective remains the same: getting the reader to think in a different way about a subject that might not be given enough thought. De Botton painted some incredibly human characters that were quite poignant in many ways, though your selected quotes taken out of context indeed give them a mocking tone that the book itself lacked. A dry sense of humor about certain things is not the same thing as contempt. By resting your focus here, you failed to understand the larger questions this book compelled people to ask about themselves and society at large.

    Of course, I could be wrong. It's entirely possible that you did look deep within and try to answer some of the questions that such a book requires of the reader…. such as "What has brought me to this occupation?" and "Do I feel fulfilled by my job?" If that is the case, then I think, given the vitriolic response you made, that your answers were not to your liking, and so you chose to vent your fury on Mr. de Botton. What else could explain such hostility?

  8. Welcome to the American publishing business, Alain. I should say I'm currently reading Pleasure/Sorrow and it's a cracking read, certainly puts one into a tangential state of mind without bleating about how and what I should think about the state of the modern world.

    I should say though there are many authors who would DIE to have even a negative review in the NYT, so cutthroat is the biz…just to keep these things in perspective. I've actually bought many a book simply based on the vitriolic/scared response of a pretentious reviewer, and I don't doubt there are many others that do too. The Book section is entertainment, much like its cousin in the Review.

  9. I wish I had read the review before I read AdB's comment about the review. While Mr Crain's commentary is as condescending as he accuses Mr. de Boton's book of being, for an adult to write anywhere "I will hate you until the day I die" is just ridonculous. Good grief, I think the last time I said that I was six years old and in a sandbox.

    To satisfy my curiosity, I went to amazon to see readers' response to the book, and they're terrific, bordering on adoring. For God's sake Mr. de Boton, the review has not "killed" your book. Give readers more credit. And while I'm not suggesting that you roll over and take it, your response, I think it might be fair to say, was extreme. Your book has been on my To Read list for several months. It just got scratched off. And not because of the pissy review.

  10. Alain, I can't say anything regarding the book in comparison to the review, as I haven't read this one yet. In fact, this was my first time hearing of it. So now it's on my list to buy. =]

    Entirely unrelated: I would seriously appreciate being able to buy all of your books on the kindle. I travel quite a bit and it's much easier to carry my kindle than tons of books; to the point that I avoid buying paper books anymore, in fact. I noticed while writing this that most of your books are now available on kindle, whereas they weren't when I'd last checked, but the remaining few are lost sales!

  11. Is that *really* Alain de Botton commenting above with oaths of everlasting hate? It doesn't sound like him. For a start the idea that poor book sales in the US from a single negative NYT book review would invalidate two years of work sounds decidedly unphilosophical; surely the work has merit in and of itself, or it does not, regardless of what's written in the NYT.

    The author of "The Consolations of Philosophy" knows this to be true, and so my suspicion is that the author of the comment above is not actually Alain de Botton.

  12. This is definitely a fake comment – de Botton would never say such things. Is it the reviewer trying to cook up a storm!

  13. I can see a new trend, publicity departments in publishing houses, realising that a vitriolic response from the reader attracts sales and attention, manufacturing outrage. Couldn't everyone just be a bit more civilised. Caleb put your gun down, Alain, go and write another brilliant book.

  14. I just want Alain and Caleb to get on – we live in a world of terrorism, pornography, cruelty, crass commercialism, Michael Jackson-mania… and you'd think that two sensitive, writerly, meek types like that could find things in common. Caleb, you started it. You say sorry. Alain, come out of your hole and shake hands with your erstwhile enemy. The blogosphere would rejoice. Book reviewing is a dying art, the books pages are dropping like flies. Do we really want to spend the dying days of book reviewing writing vicious reviews like Caleb's on Sunday?

  15. Hah, I've begun to understand why de Botton is so annoyed with the New York Times. He's basically a rather good writer (with a few lapses: do NOT buy his book Kiss and Tell), but for whatever reason, the New York Times totally has it in for him. In 2000, they published a burn-my-face-off-with-your-viciousness review of The Consolations of Philosophy. Then in 2002, they hand his next book over to Michiko Kakutani, she of the famously destructive review. And so on and so forth. I think de Botton occupies an interesting space in the imagination of the 'Brooklyn reviewer'. He's not got street cred like fellow brits geoff dyer or zadie smith (he's too urbane, and even seems to be swiss in some strange way), and he's also not an academic, so the academics hate him for stepping out of the ivory tower. So this is a guy with some very loving readers but few friends in the NY book scene. Someone do him a favour and get him a gang. What about those bully boys at n+1? They'd take care of him when someone beat him up. Couldn't James wood take him under his arm (then again, they've probably got some british feud going)? Someone give him a New Yorker profile, that will quieten the Brooklyn voices

  16. Sextus, your theory is way too intellectualised. It's interesting, however, how christian the blogosphere basically is about bad reviews: people like randall (see above) basically feel that authors should turn the other cheek and not reply. I wonder why that should be, in an interactive age?

  17. Susan, I don't "basically feel" that way–I was just offering evidence that this happened when you (and others, along with the London Guardian) seem to have basically felt it didn't.

    If I were De Botton, though, I wouldn't have taken the fight to the critic's blog. With his resources he could have done much more to bring his vengeance to fruition in a lasting way than a few comments, tweets and a few days of discussion by the peanut gallery. Seriously. If you say you'll hate someone until the day you die don't go leaving a comment on their blog about it, that's like writing a love letter in Comic Sans.

  18. Randall, you're raising a really interesting point about what a GOOD response is to a BAD review. One view is don't do anything (that's the standard view). Then there's the try-to-get-a-shot in where you can. So a punch up at a literary party, or (the modern equivalent) a punch up on Twitter. Then there's your suggestion, that one should nurture vengeance, write something big and solid around the hurt. I can see your point, but I can also see the point for the writer of giving no more time to the bad review than the bad review gave to writing it. It seems our dear Caleb didn't ponder this one long and hard – so perhaps old Buttons is right to take a pot shot back.

  19. Susan said: "people like randall (see above) basically feel that authors should turn the other cheek and not reply. I wonder why that should be, in an interactive age?"

    You just said it. This is the interactive age. It's TOO easy to interact, and the discussion inevitably devolves into comments like "I'll hate you till the day I die." What's next? "I hate your face"?

    If an author and reviewer can speak to each other with civility and restraint, that's great, but civility and restraint aren't the order of the day when it comes to the internet. The speed and ease of internet discussion usually lead to people saying things they'll regret (which are amusing for me as an observer, but obviously bad for the "professional" person saying them).

  20. So maybe I should put it this way: Authors keeping their traps shut is not about turning the other cheek. It's about protecting themselves from loss of dignity.

  21. Jolie, loss of dignity depends on the audience's reaction. I completely agree that we should return to an age of civility. But if a critic is completely uncivil, I wonder if it's then the duty of the author to be totally civil back. This is a big philosophical question!

  22. I won't pretend to be an authority on other people's duty, but I'll speak for myself: I hope I personally would have the restraint not to respond in kind to a rude book reviewer. Of course I'm guilty of behaving this way in other situations, but if my career and professional image were on the line, I hope I wouldn't approach the discussion as if it were a squabble with my little sister.

    This is an ongoing problem for authors who use blogs and social networking. They want to interact with the reading/writing community, but they have to be careful. It must be hard to maintain boundaries.

  23. Jolie, I agree, it must be hard to maintain boundaries. I feel sorry for de Botton, clearly he must have been driven incandescent with rage – and wanted to find some way of hitting back. It's propably not very wise to let your feelings show in public – though the perplexing thing is whether this sort of site is public. I see it as a sort private-public space and would hate my words here to treated like something printed in a newspaper. But I can see that's the confusing thing. What a sorry mess. I know from my own experience that I sometimes lose my temper and god help us all the day that every tiny little outburst or piece of bad behaviour becomes 'news'. Frightening….

  24. Reviewers should be held accountable for atrocious crap such as this. It's that simple.

  25. If you can destroy a writer's book with a review, then it's fair enough for the author to point this out. Interestingly, literary editors NEVER realise this. For them, it's all a game, and they enjoy a dust up. Critics don't realise it either, they just want to fill a page and move on. But for authors, they are left destroyed, their businesses in deep trouble. Think about how a hasty restaurant review in the NY Times can shut a restaurant or bring the curtain down on a broadway show. It's crazy we ever gave that paper so much power..

  26. Since when do reviewers have to be painstakingly polite, even if they do not like a book? Mr. Crain's statements are clearly his own opinion, and as one can see from the above responses, this will (perhaps unfortunately) certainly not keep away de Botton's readers.

    It is hard not to trust Mr. Crain completely, in any case, judging by Mr. de Botton's shockingly childish response. What disgusting vanity. And thuggish–am I the only one who detects a threat in his words? Thank you, Mr. Botton, you've saved me from ever wasting money and time on you. I'll save it for Mr. Crain's books.

  27. There is opinion, and then there is idiocy. If Crane was a lawyer he'd lose his license for such shoddy work. You look silly defending him.

  28. I was given a proof copy of de Botton's book and read it on the train home – I've never read a book in 40 minutes before, as it seems to me that if someone can spend so much time writing a book we owe it to the author to spend a bit of time reading it – and I can honestly say that I agree with every single word of the intellectually empty (hence reading it in under an hour), the tone is as mentioned arrogant, condescending and pompous. None of the various jobs de Botton sneers at have any relevance to each other or anything else. OK so at a biscuit manufacturer there's a man who could achieve more than devoting his life to biscuits. Arguably there is, somewhere in the world, the son of a Swiss billionaire who could write something useful rather than patronising everyone and jetting to the Maldives to track a tuna (what does any of that have to do with work? If it was a book on food systems I would understand). I work in a bookshop – I'm not going to name it because de Botton knows it – and was sorely tempted to hide this under piles of something else that deserved more attention than this predictably overhyped nonsense would get. If that is Alain posting above, I now wish I had.

  29. Which should read:

    "I agree with every single word of the review. Not only is the book lazy and intellectually empty blah blah blah…"

  30. Having not read the book in question and just finished reading Mr. Crain's review,it appears to me that Mr. de Botton confirmed everything that was said about his elitist attitude and tone in that book with his pompous and infantile response here.

    Many struggling writers are cautioned to not take criticism of their work personally and I think it behooves the so-called "professional" authors out there to do the same.

  31. The Magic Monkey, you're repeating in your comments exactly the sort of tone that Caleb used in the review – and for the same shoddy reasons. De Botton's book is genuinely very interesting. I'm an amazon top thousand reviewer, I know my books very well, and though you may not like, it's an interesting work of art. What I disliked about Caleb's review is that it never gave the guy a chance, it started from a premise that this man was evil and continued from there. As for de Botton's book being over-hyped, it wasn't hyped at all. It's published by a small literary imprint and was on track to sell a modest amount. As for your mention of de Botton's background, I can't help but feel that here is the origin of your and Caleb's problem. Enough said!!

  32. I think it's interesting that whenever people defend Caleb, they haven't read the book in question. Here's an interesting exercise that people like Lady T should carry out. Read the book, read the review – and ask yourself honestly, without prejudice, whether the review by Caleb is anything other than shoddy in the extreme. It's all very well saying, 'authors should behave', but it all depends how critics are behaving. If critics are being completely crazy and vindictive, there comes a point when the artist may well just take off the gloves. I don't think that writers should just lie down and 'take' criticism when it's shoddy and badly structured. This kind of passivity has led to the decline of reviewing as an art. A well structured, incisive review is a wonderful thing – and that's my real objection to Caleb (who seems to be modelling himself on Dale Peck). By all means criticise de Botton's book, but do it with its real flaws in mind, not with some absurd prejudice about him being 'arrogant'. Of course he's not arrogant, have you seen the guy, he's a sweet looking uber nerd. I think Caleb, Lady T and The Magic Monkey are falling prey to a weird American weakness we folk go in for when faced with a European with a fancy name; we imagine he's grand, has a castle and wants to patronise us. Caleb is showing some sort of status anxiety here. Let's collectively get over it. This is a nerd from London who happens to have a weird name but otherwise seems normal.

  33. Lady T: What's wrong with a bit of elitism? Think of the elitism of Nabokov, or Truman Capote – or more plausibly John Lanchester or Michel Houellebecq? I'm not comparing de Botton with them as writers, but I am saying that to call someone 'elitist' is a really strange charge that says more about you than about the person. What do you mean by elitist? That de Botton wouldn't vote? That he's undemocratic? That he believes in feudalism? Or that he thinks he might be more intelligent than you are!?

  34. Folks: Thanks for all your comments. A broad range of opinions have been expressed, and I'm going to close comments on this post now. all best wishes, Caleb

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