Working theory

This month's business book picks offer a mordant look at life and labor.

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Why we work
Why we work
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
By Alain de Botton
Pantheon, 336 pages, $26

The bad news is that this book's title is a fraud. The author isn't much interested in how other people feel about work. A more accurate title might have been A Learned Martian's First Exposure to Commerce.

The good news is that it doesn't matter. Alain de Botton's boundless curiosity, freakish erudition and antic sensibility save the day. The result is a mordant prose poem that raises profound questions about why we labor and what we ought to do with our lives.

The author skates blithely - and appealingly - along the edge of self-parody. One minute he's elaborating on cookie manufacturing in Belgium, the next he's reminded of paint-making in the age of Giotto. An encounter with a suburban mom prompts him to hold forth on "Karl Marx's theory of alienation as defined in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844." In another passage he harangues an office worker on the disparity between our advanced manufacturing skills and our inability to reliably achieve emotional stability. "[A] terrified expression spread across her features and she asked if I might excuse her," he recalls.

Whether he's tracking a tuna steak around the world or joining a member of the Pylon Appreciation Society for a lovelorn walk beneath English power lines, de Botton is unfailingly interesting and scathingly funny, especially at his own expense. And he learns quite a bit along the way. "When does a job feel meaningful?" he asks. "Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others."

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LAST UPDATE: Apr 24 2009 | 10:28 AM ET
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