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This well-written book is misnamed: it is not about the pleasures and sorrows of work. It is about Alain de Botton. It consists of a series of very clearly and elegantly written meditations sparked by his encounters with the people, and sometimes the objects, associated with a number of different occupations, including biscuit manufacture, painting, pylon engineering, accountancy and tuna-fishing.

This is not to say that there aren't some interesting insights along the way-there are. I had no idea, for instance, that swans frequently fly into pylons because they can't see anything directly in front of them. Their eyes are on the sides of their heads, which gives them perfect peripheral vision, but means they are liable to fly straight into pylons.

He is writing as a "philosopher", in the widest sense of the term. It means that his fondness for paradox usually triumphs over the more mundane task of providing information and explanation. He is a Romantic, which may be the source of the book's fundamental problem - one of Romanticism's errors is the belief that the self is more interesting than any object in the external universe. Because it actually isn't, it is very hard for anyone to spin interesting prose merely out of their own spontaneous observations. De Botton regards the fact that he hasn't devoted his life to becoming an expert about anything as a great advantage, as all Romantics do. But you normally have to know quite a lot about a particular sphere of endeavour in order to be able to say anything valuable about it. You have to be a Goethe or a Samuel Johnson for your observations on things you know very little about to be interesting. And not even de Botton's publisher would put him in that league.

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