Here’s a review I wrote for Barron’s of a quite interesting book that upon reading makes you feel better about devoting most of your time on this planet to that thing we call work, in its infinite varieties. The review is below.
Fun at the Office
Reviewed by Neal Lipschutz
OBSERVATIONAL HUMOR MAKES US laugh by noting incongruities embedded in the surface of our lives. We’ve been too busy or too numb to notice them, but we laugh when they are pointed out.
Something like that is at work in this elegantly written paean to the daily toil that consumes the vast majority of our lives. The author examines the seemingly mundane occupations we take for granted as if he’s viewed them for the very first time. Their innards exposed, they become new and fascinating for us, too.
It’s the varied jobs and skills that get tuna from the Indian Ocean to a supermarket in Britain. It’s the development of a new biscuit whose marketing scheme places it as a caloric antidote to human loneliness.
In the hands of another writer, this could be material for satire. But de Botton finds nobility and a needed structure in our work. Near the end, he writes: “Work does not by its nature permit us to do anything other than take it too seriously. It must destroy our sense of perspective, and we should be grateful to it for precisely that reason.”
Many buyers of this book will identify with the unnamed accountancy firm profiled. It’s in a London office building, but our anthropologist-like author finds it the “setting for a range of behaviors at least as peculiar as anything an ethnographer might uncover among the clans of Samoa.” The levels of specialization are exacting. Nothing is built or sold.
The author resists any notion that the firm’s obscure tasks and anonymous efforts (one of the documents it produced is called “The Weighted Average Cost of Capital in the Copper Mining Industry”) are ever in vain or even boring. While generally reasonable, he sometimes takes his defenses to the brink of Pollyanna-ism. Indeed, the sorrows of work are given much less space than the joys, at least joys as observed by the author.
He writes, approvingly, “Levels of commitment that in previous societies were devoted to military adventures and religious intoxication have been channeled into numerical needlework. History may dwell on stories of heroism and drama, but there are ultimately few of us out on the high seas, and many of us in the harbor, counting the ropes and untangling the anchor chains.”