The author calls this book “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.”
Ten short bursts of insight into various aspects of the working world:
* Tracking cargo ships as they enter the Thames and eventually spitting out their cargo on a forgotten dock in London, allowing us to be blissfully ignorant of the sea passage of our necessary goods (shoes, car parts, rolls of paper).
* The logistics industry, following a tuna from being clubbed to death on a deck of a boat in the Maldives through the fish processing plant and onto a cargo jet to Heathrow, loaded into an “articulated lorry” (e.g. freight truck) to drive to a grocery store in Bristol, where Linda picks up the tuna steak and is ambushed by the author and photographer to be allowed to follow her home to watch her make dinner and see the fish end up in the belly of her 8 year old son.
* An inside glimpse into biscuit manufacturer United Biscuits, chatting with the marketer who came up with a new biscuit (read: cookie) named “Moments” which aimed to address low-income mothers’ yearning for sympathy, affection and “me-time”. The division of labor allowing for specialization and narrowly constricting tasks (high efficiency but not a driver of a meaningful life). “It is significant that the adults who feature in children’s books are rarely Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers.”
* Time spent with a husband and wife team of career counselors, therapists attempting to help you understand what it is you like to do best. “I left [the counselor’s office] newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfillment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”
* Japanese TV satellite launch from French Guiana reinforces the switch from our previous awe of nature to our new fascination with things man-made.
* A poignant peek at an artist’s time spent painting the same tree for 5 years, resulting in a collection of work that is exhibited in London and slowly sold to net the artist the equivalent salary of a dysfunctional plumber.
* A walk under the power lines from the coast of England through to London, admiring the 542 pylons holding up the currents of electricity. The engineer reveals codes that allow him shorthand notation for common electrical occurrences, and allow him to communicate with engineers the world over. The author yearns for this type of shorthand to express things like the desire to elicit love from people one does not even particularly like, or the irritation evoked when acquaintances express more concern for one’s illness than oneself.
* A tour of Ernst and Young accountancy, the financial auditors. “The advent of dedicated financial specialists, who are unable to fish or build a house or sew a coat but are entirely committed to answering questions of amortisation, standard engagement revenue and transaction tax, seems a culmination of a long history of the division of labour, which began in Ancient Egypt three millennia ago and, in oases like these at least, has generated spectacular returns and some distinctive psychological side-effects.” “In wider view of the public, accountancy may be synonymous with bureaucratic tedium, but from close up, this particular conglomeration of numerical talents presents the observer with a case-study of the discrete charms of offices, with their intriguing blend of camaraderie, intelligence, and futility.” “They seem to have no desire to undertake the kind of work which makes any claim to leave a lasting legacy. They have the inner freedom to exercise their intelligence in the way that taxi drivers will practise their navigation skills: they will go wherever their clients direct them to. They have no ambition to become known to strangers or to record their insights for an unimpressed and ephemeral future. They are well adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion. They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit.” “Generating money is really an excuse to do other things, to rise from bed in the morning, to talk authoritatively in front of overhead projectors, to plug in laptops in foreign hotel rooms, to give presentations analysing market shares… Long before we ever earned any money, we were aware of the necessity of keeping busy: we knew the satisfaction of stacking bricks, pouring water into and out of containers and moving sand from one pit to another, untroubled by the greater purpose of our actions.”
* An essay on entrepreneurship and an exposÃ© of an Inventors’ Conference; de Botton arranges for an interview with the Iranian inventor of shoes to walk on water, who is detained in customs for alleged bomb making materials and can’t make it to the convention. There are also the inventions of the Crisp Bar, a flattening of several potato chips into one bar, to save space in your pantry; a braking system to prevent accidents, a non flammable material that has no practical use, and on and on.
* The final essay on aviation begins with a trade show in Paris for the aviation industry, where the author sees deals being struck between 3rd tier nations and various aviation supplier, watches bits of cheese laid out as lunchtime snacks for the delegates to lure them closer into the booth about new wing technologies. Six months later, the author gets lost in the Mojave Desert and stumbles on an airfield of decaying planes, bribing his way onto the tarmac to take a closer look and snap photos.
A few of the longer quotes:
Most of us stand poised as the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality). We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or a bicycle. (p 127)
The Japanese TV satellite launch in French Guiana covered by a famous Hong Kong TV personality who is decidedly out of place:
The only person who seemed unable to join in the excitement was the Hong Kong television presenter, who sat glumly at a table pushing shrimp around her plate. She had found the launch a disappointment, she said and, smily weakly, added that she had now started her own countdown: to her return to her apartment overlooking Victoria Harbour. Her bitterness smacked of bruised egocentricity. The only topic she appeared comfortable with was mosquitoes. Though tales of the bites of others are usually no less wearing than those of their dreams, she boasted at length about how she had been devoured during the launch, and proceeded to show off her ankles, hopeful that the interest of so many minute beings might stand as a last, desperate proof of her continued magnetism. I realized then that it might be possible to feel jealous of a rocket. (p 164)