Work looms large in the lives of most of us, but has always been strangely under-represented in literature. This book goes some way to remedying that deficit. In a series of wry, poignant essays, Alain de Botton examines the work that goes into planting a tree, building a pylon, marketing an invention and designing a biscuit.
He explores whole worlds of work which are alien planets to the majority of us – such as the world of container ships, and the enthusiasts who spot them and are self-taught experts on gantry cranes, iron-ore bulk carriers, switch gears and wheat storage. A brilliant photo-essay (and hats off to Richard Baker for his moody, Edward Hopper-esque black-and-white photos) charts the journey of a tuna from the Maldives to your local supermarket.
De Botton astutely observes that the office is to the modern world what the cloister was to the Middle Ages: a sexually charged arena of repressed desire. He has a gift for defamiliarising the taken-for-granted events of everyday life, such as a train full of comfortable commuters silently reading newspaper stories of tragedy, abduction and murder: "These accounts, so obviously catastrophic and demented, are paradoxically consoling, for they help us to feel sane and blessed by comparison."
The last chapter sees De Botton having an "Ozymandias" moment as he contemplates an aeroplane graveyard in the Mojave Desert. All our endeavours are ultimately futile, he argues, but how unbearable and how unwise it would be to dwell on that fact. Let us work instead. "Let death find us as we are building up our matchstick protests against its waves." De Botton's combination of grave melancholy and sly humour is reminiscent of Proust, or Leonard Cohen.