Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nice work, if you can get it

Here's a recommendation for your reading list on vacation: a book about work.

Alain de Botton's "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" may not sound like the most ideal escape from the office. But de Botton, a writer whose every sentence is a delight, has penned an exotic travelogue that traverses the globe in an ambitious quest to pin down the meaning of work.

It's enjoyable armchair travel and it may give you a fresh perspective on your job. You can read my full review, which ran in today's Books section of The Christian Science Monitor, here.

De Botton's most essential book is "The Architecture of Happiness." It's a profound work that will literally change the way you look at the world around you. Below is my brief review of that book, which ran in The Monitor's Books section on November 14, 2006.

The Architecture of Happiness, By Alain de Botton

Frank Zappa reportedly once said, "Writing about art is like dancing about architecture." If only the musician had lived long enough to read Alain de Botton.

In The Architecture of Happiness, Mr. de Botton, a polymath renaissance man of sorts, and a self-styled "Everyman's philosopher," effortlessly untangles a knotty question: "What constitutes beauty in art?" And, by extension, "What is a beautiful building?"

On the face of it, the subject might sound dull, arcane, and, frankly, impenetrable. It certainly did to this reader, whose interest in buildings ended at age 10 with the permanent shelving of his LEGO set.

Yet de Botton renders this finest of arts (albeit one constructed with the coarsest of materials) compelling by explaining how buildings affect us on an emotional level - even when those feelings are subconscious and difficult to articulate.

Step by step, and with intuitive logic, the author reveals how we each assign different values to different materials, shapes, and colors. Thus buildings evoke associations with qualities that range from playful to austere, from kind to foreboding. He observes that architecture we now deem "dated" reflects how the culture has embraced a new set of values.

De Botton's writing style isn't academic. But it is scholarly, thoughtful, and infused with literary prose - each sentence a perfect choreography of words - that makes one forget that he's using a pen and paper rather than a paintbrush and canvas. (Almost every page is handsomely illustrated with photos, too.)

The result isn't just a primer on architecture, but a work that will profoundly change the way you see your everyday environment. When was the last time you could say that about a book?

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