Do we work to survive or to fulfil ourselves? That's the question asked by Alain de Botton's new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
Credit crunch. Recession. Financial slowdown. Whatever the headlines might be, there's a school of thought that in such times, we flee to literature that allows us some kind of escapism. In the 1930s it was Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind. This year, the US bookseller Barnes & Noble announced a six per cent rise in romance novel sales, and, of course, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series continues to sweep all before it. Not all its readers are teenage vampire fans, either; you don't sell 22 million copies of a book if it's just for the kids.
A desire for escapism, however, ignores the presence of two hugely popular books that concentrate on the experiences of the workplace: the incredible comeback of Ayn Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged and the arrival of the philosopher Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Rand's book rocketed to the top of global charts this year, powered largely by its central (albeit fictional) theme, which appears prescient: a dystopian world teeters on the edge of collapse as the US economy nosedives thanks to intervention in business by government. But the objectivist philosophy Rand champions - in which man's happiness is the moral purpose of his life and productive achievement is his noblest activity - is not something de Botton can accept.
"It's extremely aggressive in its suggestion that you can be anything you want to be," he snorts. "That's a very appealing message in these times and very American, but of course it's not true. We have all sorts of limitations. We may fall ill. We may not, in the end, be up to it. So it's a very painful philosophy and a very hard philosophy, really. I wonder why anybody would want to put themselves through it. I'm haunted enough by ambition not to need an extra dose from Ayn Rand to get me out of bed in the morning."
If you're looking for some relief from talk of downturns, redundancies and downsizing, de Botton is the perfect antidote. He maintains it is a coincidence that The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was published at a time when we're hyper-aware of our jobs, but the poetic way in which he tracks an accountancy firm, an entrepreneur fair and a tuna fisherman in the Maldives achieves something really rare; a charming travelogue through some potentially mundane, real-world territory.
"Having thoughts about work is something you do at any point during an economic cycle, because it's so much a part of our lives," he says. "The two great modern obsessions are work and love. And whether you're in love or out of love, in work or out of work, there's a perennial question: am I getting this part of my jigsaw correct?" But even if his new book could be accused of bandwagon jumping, it barely matters. It's fascinating not only because it's a well-written, at times dryly funny travelogue (the first sentence of one chapter at a biscuit factory is "I became interested in biscuits"), but also because it makes you think about how you approach what you spend most of your life doing: working. For de Botton, the process of writing this book went back further than simply wondering how 10 people in 10 different jobs did just that. He identified what work is for psychologically. And in a downturn, he believes, that changes.
"There have always been two notions of work knocking around together. The first is that work is basically for money, for survival, to put food on the table. And in a way that's the oldest view. It involves notions of suffering and penance. The more modern view is that it's a way of fulfilling yourself, a path to freedom. It's a very utopian idea. We've probably got both of those stories in our heads at any point, depending on our circumstances at any particular time. And right now many of us may be going back to the older view - a job is fine as long as it pays. It doesn't have to have a higher meaning. Certainly I've heard the line 'at least it's a job' many times over the past few months."
De Botton suggests that such a hardening of a relationship with a wage actually lowers expectations and makes it easier for us to be happy. "In boom times, you can't open a newspaper without hearing a story about some self-made millionaire. And for most of us, that's incredibly anxiety-inducing. You end up wondering why you aren't like that, why your career isn't similarly turbocharged. In a downturn, being freaked out by that isn't an issue, and it makes for a more relaxed state of affairs."
All of which probably makes The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work sound like the kind of schmaltzy self-help books that are quickly discarded. Thankfully, de Botton is not that kind of writer. The Art of Travel, his 2002 book, did something similar to his latest work (which he admits he nearly called The Art of Work) but asked questions about what we expect from our holidays. "In both cases what I wanted to do in a personal way - not as an academic but as a human being - was ask these outwardly banal questions such as 'What's the point of this? Why are we doing this and where is this heading?' I may not have clear answers, but that doesn't mean you can't say something meaningful. One of the best things that books can do is allow you to think for yourself."
This time, he tracks a tuna fish from a Maldives fishing boat to a dinner table in Bristol, England. He follows the design process of the British biscuit, Moments. It is certainly thought provoking. De Botton's aim is not to tell us about worlds of work we already know ("everyone on television is either a lawyer, a criminal or working in the health service," he laughs) but to hold a mirror up to the parts of the working world that are essential to the way we function as societies but entirely neglected.
"We live in a world where culture is really skewed towards art and nature and pre-industrial idylls. And that's important to me because it means that very little of the way we actually live is reflected in photographs or novels. I wanted to make the point that we should open our eyes to people working in logistics, for example. It is pretty thrilling what they do. I guess there is a side of me that is inspired by geeky, technological pursuits. They're usually handled in a geeky, scientific way, and I was keen to make sure they had a different kind of voice."
That also means his book boasts some brilliant photography. De Botton aimed to make it less a journalistic exercise, and more a book of ideas and thoughts - so the images are key to understanding this hidden work that goes on in industrial estates and windswept ports. It makes for a beautiful rhythm to the chapters and, at times, a sense that de Botton is baffled by our notions and expectations of what work means as much as he is delighted by the fact that it only takes 52 hours for the tuna fish to make it from sea to shelf.
Still, one might ask what de Botton, as the offspring of a multimillionaire financier, would know about the real world. He has enjoyed success in his career as a writer - this is not a 39-year-old man who has spent days stacking shelves, so what right has he got to discuss such endeavours with such intellectual, often laconic detachment? "I completely understand that argument," he says, "but that's the perennial writer's problem no matter who they are or what they're writing about. You're trying to enter into a world you may not have directly experienced - the murderer, the dying child. It doesn't change because it's the world of work.
"I do belong to an intellectual class but the question is whether you can transcend that. Can you enter into other people's experience? As a writer, I have to believe that you can. Otherwise we're all stuck in our little bubbles and no one can understand anybody. It's a very depressing argument that a writer cannot possibly understand anything at all about a biscuit factory. At the end of the day we're all human beings, and there's only good writing and bad writing."
It may be that de Botton - like Rand before him - is better placed to chronicle our hopes and fears about work, career and life because he is detached from that very world. While Rand was profoundly bitter about the way the world was set up and discussed the potential consequences in her fiction, de Botton is disarmingly sympathetic to the travails of the modern man in a world he is powerless to change.
"One of the basic pleasures of work is ordering the world in some way," he says. Taking the chaos of nature and placing order upon it is work in its most basic form. As children, some of the first work we see is housekeeping, and all work, even arranging computer data, is a form of housekeeping. "Work is also a form of gardening in some ways; it's why gardening looms large in people's fantasies of what they'd like to do. It's about training something wild. It's also about creating something that's better than you manage to be in the rest of life, creating a little island of perfection."
Whether you actually manage to live on that island is not the point, it seems. The work of Rand and de Botton proves that we'd like to think we could. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton is out now (Hamish Hamilton).