Reviewing the Review: June 28 2009

A dustup is always fun. Caleb Crain basically murdalizes a non-fiction book called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton in today’s New York Times Book Review. It’s an exciting article, but after examining the plays in detail I’m not quite sure who wins.

A critic who sets out to write a strongly negative review ought to open with a powerful point, but Caleb Crain actually punches himself with the opening paragraph, which posits many doubtful assertions as fact:

Work is activity that earns money. Lucky people enjoy their work, but even they might not do it without pay. To the extent that pay motivates, people work for the sake of something else — so they can buy food, shelter, clothing, security, luxury or leisure — and against their inclinations. Now, to do anything against one’s inclinations is to put one’s dignity at risk. It is fascination with this cold truth that draws children to blend sludge out of refrigerated leftovers and then dare one another: “Would you drink it for a hundred dollars? For a thousand?” Everyone has a price in theory; a worker is someone who has agreed to a number. He is exposed as someone under constraint, like a prisoner in a stockade. To mock him for being less than perfectly free in his thoughts and actions is easy.

This is some dense prose, and it expresses a surprisingly shallow point. Our connections with our jobs go much deeper than money. For many people, work is identity. It gives us our pride, our sense of self. Certainly work is a key part of who we are, not an activity we engage in with calculated detachment. I really don’t know where Caleb Crain is coming from with this opener. He also doesn’t mention the book he’s reviewing.

He’s better when he gets to the book, which, in his opinion, reeks of condescension. Crain finds de Botton a highly unreliable and capricious journalist, and he scores one killer punch here, describing de Botton’s account of a dull interview with a bureaucrat in London:

De Botton decides that he pities the man for his hollowness. But it is evident that he was outplayed — that he wasn’t prepared with questions detailed or insightful enough to oblige the executive to take him seriously. It shouldn’t have surprised him that the head of an accounting firm would know well how to keep his cards to himself while going through the forms of transparency.

Crain’s point about de Botton’s unconscious snobbery is a serious one, but interestingly Crain’s prose has a snobbish undertone too, as when he drops a reference to the classical music term “ostinato” into a sentence. I can’t stand that kind of pretension — if I want to read about classical music I’ll read a damn book by Alex Ross (and, to be honest, I don’t want to read about classical music).

Crain’s review also fails to connect the book to the long tradition of non-fiction literature about Americans at work: The Organization Man by Wiliam Whyte, Working by Studs Terkel, Gig by John Bowe and Marisa Bowe. All in all, I’ll hand this match to Alain de Botton. Caleb Crain does not have a strong enough offense to pull this bad review off.

That’s about as exciting as this weekend’s NYTBR gets. Paul Bloom’s meditation upon The Evolution of God by Richard Wright is meant to be a rave (he calls the book brilliant) but the points I manage to glean from this review are wishy-washy. Speaking of condescension, both Bloom and Wright seem to assume that only monotheistic Western religions deserve our awe, and I don’t think much of the attitude expressed by this:

In fact, when it comes to expanding the circle of moral consideration, he argues, religions like Buddhism have sometimes “outperformed the Abrahamics.” But this sounds like the death of God, not his evolution.

It’s strange to imagine that anyone would want to read a modern history of religion that doesn’t take Buddhism seriously; this book is called The Evolution of God and in my observation the Eastern religions have a more highly evolved sense of God than the Western ones.

Today’s NYTBR also features David Gates on Love and Obstacles by Alexsander Hemon and Jeremy McCarter on a new biography of playwright Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby.

14 Responses

  1. One thing about the Crain
    One thing about the Crain article. De Botton was actually born in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s also written a few novels. Therefore, he wouldn’t be a “British essayist.” Where are the fact checkers at the Times these days? For goodness sake, you can just go to de Botton’s website for all that.

  2. I once read a de Botton book,
    I once read a de Botton book, ‘Consolations of Philosophy’, although most of the philosophy that I study is no place to go for consolation. It was a companion text to a PBS series of the same name. With six short chapters that profile six philosophers three ancient and three modern that attempt to help us overcome our perennial anxieties about unpopularity (Socrates), poverty (Epicurus), frustration (Seneca), inadequacy (Montaigne), heartbreak (Schopenhauer), and difficulties (Nietzsche). I can recommend it as a cursory introduction to philosophy. He actually visits Montainge’s chateau where he retired to, at an early age, to contemplate and write, couched by wooden beams overhead in his study with great quotes from other great philosophers inscribed on them. This book actually inspired someone to give me a gift of Montainge’s writings which I have been trudging through for a few years now.

  3. The death of god’s
    an

    The death of god’s
    an iteresting consideration
    no sooner is it achieved
    an along comes another one
    or even ressurection
    the almighty is either a bus
    or a scientific equation
    perhaps religious speculation
    which ever way you look at it
    at the present moment
    the bus is a certainty
    the rest are information
    what’s that you said
    about the super highway
    gamblers dont do buses
    only riverboats and trains
    dont get many of them
    wandering in a desert
    unless the promised land
    is located in las vegas
    and gambling really is
    an empirical vocation
    while the book of numbers
    is running the revelation

  4. Murdalize is a word:

    Moe, to
    Murdalize is a word:

    Moe, to Curly “Come over here so I can murdalize you!”

    Curly, slaps face vigorously with two hands, then thrums his cheek with his knuckles, “Nyeah!”

    Moe, “Why I oughta…”

  5. What’s more snobby, using a
    What’s more snobby, using a word someone’s unfamiliar with, or criticizing someone for using such a word?

  6. Thank you for your perceptive
    Thank you for your perceptive analysis. Yes, I am indeed Swiss, but the errors naturally don’t end there. Shame on the NY Times (again!) for letting an attack dog loose on a book of mine. I look forward to the day, possibly very far away, when the paper sees fit to give me even vaguely balanced coverage. This is appalling review number 6 in a row from them. I hope it won’t put all readers off the truth, which I think is far from being so bad.

  7. It reminded me of Walter
    It reminded me of Walter Kirn’s review of James Wood. It’s an expression of anxiety about some supposed condescension : a weird mental habit that Americans often indulge in. Hence the extreme pertinence of his mentioning de Boton as “British.” In many instances he simply misunderstands the tone being used – but either way you cannot write a review about someone’s tone while not engaging with any of the ideas at hand. Would that not be condescending and superficial? I like both of these writers, I should add. But one is not necessarily endowed with the right ear to judge the other.

  8. Edward Champion: Botton has
    Edward Champion: Botton has lived and been educated in Britain since the age of eight; that he is also a novelist by no means indicates that he is not an essayist – ‘British essayist’ may not be the most complete description, but it’s not erroneous, and closer than ‘Swiss novelist’ would be.

  9. As Ayn Rand said, people
    As Ayn Rand said, people would do anything destroy a great talent, but would take pride in teaching a village idiot how to make a basket!

    It’s absurd that how deBotton’s unfairly attacked while people are ready to invest time and energy to promote all kinds of rubbish!

    Zeynep

  10. Someone works for two or
    Someone works for two or three years with immense application on a book. Much of his waking time, when he is not writing, is taken up with thinking about the subject of the book. Someone else then reads the book, and spends an easy hour or so penning a review — that rubbishes the book, ignoring its many merits and playing up its faults, or worse, perhaps: zooming in on parts of it where malicious interpretation or tweaking can find negatives, and then making it seem as if the book consists, almost entirely, of those negatives.
    Was de Botton’s response excessive? Perhaps. But that excess is partly explained by the ‘excessive’ disparity between the work put in by the writer and that put in by the reviewer, and yet the reviewer’s quick work can inflict huge damage on the long labour of the writer.

  11. The problem is that de Botton
    The problem is that de Botton – who plays a great wiseman on TV sorta thing – doesn’t even have enough common sense to remain in this role and proves to the whole world that he’s nothing but a common moron. Then he fortifies this impression by offering puerile explanations like that he intended this to be a private letter. Who’d post a private letter on the net as a blog comment? How can a cretinous missive be excused by saying it was private? Private of public, it’s still the same thing. His problem is that now that he demonstrated that he’s a pretty stupid guy in actual life who’ll belive his elevated-philosopher literary persona? Otoh, I quite reading him long before this incident: his Proust was good I thought, and so was Consolations of Philosophy, but then I got more stuff of his and I couldn’t finish the next book: it became a gimmick and I was bored.

  12. Finally, there is someone who did an honest and intellectual review on Crain’s review. At the end of his review, the only thing I was left with was how much of a snob and condescending he was with lack of intellect that he tried too hard to display. But de Botton, next time, put it in the envelope and burns it, sit back, and enjoy the Schadenfreude like we all do secretly. Societies don’t like straight forward people even though we all would want to say the same things or worse in response to such writings.

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