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.