'The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work' For his book, The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work, philosopher Alain De Botton observed everyday occupations. On one trip, he observed the development of a new cookie. Along the way, he looks at what makes our work worthwhile.
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'The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work'

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'The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work'

'The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Just 200 years ago, when we sat down to lunch, we knew where everything in the room came from - the cheese, the chair and the silverware. So where did the tuna in your lunch today come from, and the toaster, and for that matter the bread? These days, we're alienated from the ingredients of our lives, even as many of us put in the better part of our waking hours making, moving and marketing them. Philosopher Alain de Botton's new book observes everyday occupations. He travels to the Maldives to watch fishermen club tuna, and follows that fish to a dinner table in England.

He observes the inspiration, manufacture and meaning of a new cookie called the Moment. He watches accountants and transmission engineers, and along the way he wonders what makes our work joyous or meaningful. What makes it worth it? So tell us: What do people just not get about your job? What don't they see? Truckers and bakers and rural vets and engineers - tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site; that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And later, from work to play - sure, we know you'll remember the perfect honeymoon on the beach, but we want to hear about that most memorable family vacation disaster. Did the kids get chicken pox at the Grand Canyon? Which one lives on in family lore? Email us, talk@npr.org.

But first, the joys and sorrows of - "The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work." Alain de Botton is the author of a number of books on the philosophy of everyday life. And he joins us today from the studios of the BBC in London. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ALAIN DE BOTTON (Author): Thanks very much. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And let me return to that unfortunate tuna for a moment. From the moment it's lifted out of the water in the Indian Ocean to the supermarket shelf in Bristol, 50 hours, which is an amazing - and as you point out - almost invisible accomplishment.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right. I mean it's, you know, this is in a culture. This is the Indian Ocean, where things generally move pretty slowly. And you have a kind of VIP lane for the tuna. I mean, the tuna is sent by - often hydrofoil or a high-powered boat from the place where it's caught to the airport, directly into the hole of an aircraft, and an - over to Europe and the rest of the developed world. I mean, it's an extraordinary journey.

And it's just - there's something that appealed to me about the idea of tracing fish in a plane. You know, most airplanes that you take, most intercontinental flights, will have fish in the hold. And I don't know, that image of fish up in the sky seemed to me to reflect some of the beauty, craziness, dedication of the modern world of work.

CONAN: And the modern world of work, you suggest, we celebrate doctors, lawyers, the people we see on television. We don't celebrate the kind of people who actually do most of our everyday work.

Mr. DE BOTTON: There is, I think, a curious silence, particularly in kind of works of high culture, about how the world is actually made and functions. Of course, we reflect the working world through our economic analysis, through the business pages of the newspapers, through business analysis, but for what work really feels like, there's an odd silence. You know, if you were a Martian sent to look at an average bookstore and you looked at what was on the front table and tried to guess what human beings were like, you'd come away with a view that basically, human beings just spend all their time at home falling in love, occasionally squabbling with their families and once in a while, murdering somebody.

But one of the things that you don't get to see is that actually, people are going to the office, the business park, the factory. There's an odd silence. We somehow don't hold up a mirror to what we're actually doing.

CONAN: And there is a fascinating passage when you visit the biscuit company -that's a cookie company for American consumption. And this is a company that is in the process of trying out a new product, and I guess we should not be shocked that the product was developed not in a bakery or in a kitchen but in a focus group.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right. I mean, this is an organization, a cookie business, a huge business owned by an American private equity firm that employs 15,000 people to make items which most of us will snack on and not give a second thought to. But you know, for 15,000 people, that's their life. And I think what I was interested in looking at is the way that jobs that used to be done in a relatively small way by teams of 10, 15 people are now done by thousands of people, and the feelings that provide, that creates, principally the feeling of a loss of meaning. You know, one of the things I think we all really want from our work is a feeling that our work is meaningful.

Again and again, I came across that when I talked to people in their workplace. Of course, you want a salary, you want to be, you know, paid for what you do. But you also want to feel that you're making a difference. And I think, you know, one of the features of the modern working world is we work in large organizations. The majority of Americans work in organizations of over 100 people. As soon as an organization gets over a certain size, you get quite distanced from what you're actually doing to other people's lives, and that's what I was curious to look at.

CONAN: This incredible specialization of our lives, that we're not even baking cookies, we're in charge of the machine that applies the chocolate on top of the cookie.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right. I mean, I was talking to some employees who do the insurance for the pallet, the sort of wooden crates on which the biscuits will go from one hub to another, and so they are so far - you know, I was thinking about, you know, how does work become meaningful? Work becomes meaningful when you feel you're making a difference, either because you're making somebody's life less painful or because you're in some ways producing pleasure for them. Now, baking - don't get me wrong - baking cookies is a pleasurable activity. I mean, anyone who is ever hungry in the middle of the morning goes for the cookie jar.

Thank goodness these things exist. But the problem is if you're employee number 8,300 of a giant organization, you're very far from the source of the meaning sort of generating aspect of the cookie business. And that's why there were some people who just felt a feeling of drift, a kind of alienation, like what are we doing this for, that you would never have felt in a small business, which explains - you know, I talked to a lot of people about their fantasies, what is your fantasy of work? And people came again and again to the idea of the small enterprise, the small shop. You know, it's the small cookie baking shop or whatever it is. And it's quite clear why this happens. Because we want to see - we want a connection between what we are doing and the difference it's making to another person's life. So we don't all need to be president, but we need to feel nevertheless that we are having an impact, a positive impact of somebody's life.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. What impact does your job have on other people's lives? What is it about your job we don't understand? 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org, and Mat is on the line calling from Harveysburg in Ohio.

MATT(Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Matt.


MATT: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MATT: I'd just like to comment that what I find enjoyable about my job - I design control systems for buildings, so I integrate HVAC, lighting, security, all of that into a building, is the sense when you're done that you've made something inanimate come alive.

CONAN: Hmm. So the building is itself breathing and has a nervous system, as it were?

MATT: Yeah, it's kind of like the human body. You've got a brain, you've got the central nervous system, a pulmonary system. A building is kind of like that to me. You make it something that it wasn't when you got there.

CONAN: And do other people understand that?

MATT: No, I think our best hope is to be invisible, so no call is a good day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And what's the size of the company you work in, Matt?

MATT: Right now, we're three people.

CONAN: Three people, so that's at least - there are two other people who understand what you do.

MATT: Yes.

CONAN: Okay, Matt, thanks very much.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we - most of us work in buildings and don't give a thought to whoever it is that keeps the air conditioning and the electricity and all of that going until it fails.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right, and I think also what's fascinating about your caller is, I don't know about you, but I had quite a hard time understanding what he actually did. I have a sort of vague understanding, and that's - you know, a feature of the modern world is we tend to not understand who people are until we've asked them what they do. You know, the classic opener with a stranger is, what do you do? And you know, 200 years ago, we didn't necessarily do that. We'd say, you know, who are your parents, or where do you come from? Now we say, what do you do? And it's a symptom of the modern economy that most of the time, we can't actually immediately grasp what people do because jobs are so specialized. And that's very good from an economic point of view. It keeps specializations, creates efficiency. But it does lead to often a kind of difficulty of dialogue with new people.

CONAN: And one of the things you do is follow a career counselor, and you observe in that chapter of your book that many of us feel somehow we've missed our calling. And you describe that word calling as a curious and unfortunate term, and what do you mean by that?

Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, it can be very unhelpful. You know, many people expect that if they've got, you know, if they're happy in a job, it's because it was their destiny to take that job. And especially, you know, many graduates, you know, people leaving university now feel - they're a bit confused about what to do next. And they are almost expecting that the sky will open, and a giant finger will point at them and go, you, you know, you should be a doctor, or you know, you should head for law school or whatever it is.

And I don't think it's like that. And I think most of us have many possibilities within us. And the belief that we should know what we want to do, the belief that that's the normal thing, is incredibly confusing, especially for young people, because it leads them to think there's something wrong with me. I'm confused, and that's a sign that there's something wrong. And that's absolutely not the way.

I mean, talking to this career counselor, that's absolutely not the way he saw it. And he said, you know, the greatest tragedy is that people don't take that process of inquiry serious enough. They don't give themselves the time to try and find out what it is they really want to do. And we talk all the time about the labor market being very flexible and people being able to change their occupation many times throughout their careers. And though that's sometimes true, I think, you know, once you head down a path, it can be very hard to reverse out of it again. And that's why I was very interested in this idea that you really have to pause and think and take this period of your life so seriously.

CONAN: Let's get Jeff(ph) on the line, Jeff with us from DeKalb in Illinois.

JEFF (Caller): Yes, good day. I'm a tooling engineer for the packaging industry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And what is a tooling engineer?

JEFF: Well, I don't design the machines that actually seal the packages; I don't design the packages. I design the tooling that seals packages on machines for your larger stores, grocery stores or like Wal-Mart chain.

CONAN: So a big box of - what kinds of packages? You know, 48 packages of toilet paper or something?

JEFF: Well, mostly blister packs. Blister packs, where you have a blister sealed on to a card. That requires a special set of tooling sealed on a machine. So I guess the one thing that I can see is that I can walk down a hardware aisle, I can walk down the home, household aisle, and I can see a lot of the packages that I have seen - or that I have designed tooling for.

CONAN: And the rest of us just wrestle with them when we get home because we can't open them.

JEFF: No, well - you know, then I guess I did my job right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, that was obviously somebody else's blister packages. Jeff, thanks very much for the call. I never knew that there was somebody who did that and that's what it was called.

JEFF: Well, I would have to say there's not many of us, and there's probably a good reason.

CONAN: Talk about a specialized job - we're talking about specialized jobs today with Alain De Botton, the philosopher who's written a new book called "The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work," also "The Architecture of Happiness" is one of his previous books.

If you'd like to join the conversation, tell us what it is you do, what it is we don't get about it, and what it is that makes it meaningful in your life, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Alain De Botton writes in his new book: All societies have had work at their center. Ours is the first to suggest that it could be something more than a punishment or a penance. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work, even in the absence of a financial imperative.

The book is titled "The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work," and Alain De Botton is our guest this hour, and we want to hear from you. What do people just not get about your job? How is connected to meaning in life? Truck drivers, bakers, rural vets and engineers, what is it we don't see? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Let's talk with Lisa(ph), Lisa with us from San Francisco.

LISA (Caller): Hi, Neal. I love your program, and this is once again a very rich and resonant subject.

CONAN: Thank you.

LISA: I am a garden designer and gardener. And I think that in this time that we're living in, where everything is hyper-accelerated and people are so consumed with multitasking and all of these things, that we're all really removed from the process of where our food comes from or what the seasons are and, you know, what gardens do.

And so a lot of my work, which is really wonderful, and I have wonderful clients, is to provide a beautiful view for people, for people to see as they're coming and going from their homes, as they're sitting inside looking out their windows. And a lot of that involves listening and observing and forensics in a garden and just the process, which can - which is a total metaphor for living in the world and being happy and being content. So that's what I would offer.

CONAN: And the meaning, I guess, is in the final product, the view.

LISA: Say that again?

CONAN: And the meaning you get from it is watching people look at it.

LISA: Absolutely. I love to make them happier, to give them pleasure from making the view beautiful for them. I do.

CONAN: And Alain, Lisa seems to have one of those jobs that still exists in our society that's not part of this mechanized and corporate world you're talking about.

Mr. DE BOTTON: It's interesting because when I talked to people for the book and asked them about their fantasies, what is your fantasy dream job? The job of a landscape gardener came up again and again, and I think this is not a coincidence. I think that gardening is right at the center of what all jobs should, in a sense, be doing when they're going right. If you think about gardening, what's it doing? You're taking chaos, you're taking, you know, rude and unkempt nature, and you're training it in some way. You training it toward something beautiful. You're creating something.

You'll never manage to tame the whole world, but in a little space, which we call a garden, you'll be able to create something beautiful. And I think that's what we all want from our work. Even if we're not interested in gardening, we want to create something which is that little bit better than the rest of the world outside, which we can't fix necessarily. We create some little island of serenity and order and beauty and logic or whatever it is, and that's why I think the fantasy of gardening is so central. And my advice to somebody who's, I don't know, running a data systems center or something, you know, try and make it feel like your workforce is gardening. Try and make all jobs feel like gardening because that's the route, in a sense, to satisfaction.

CONAN: Lisa, that's an endorsement if I ever heard one.

LISA: I hardily, hardily agree. I feel - well, I will go back to my gardens this afternoon feeling very self-satisfied.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

LISA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Anna(ph), Anna with us from Waikiki in Hawaii.

ANNA (Caller): Hi. I have a profession that's centuries old. I bartend, and I have the joy of doing it on a catamaran and in Waikiki. And what I think is unique about it is that I never thought about being a greeter of aloha, but that's exactly what I've become. And it's more than just serving drinks. It's greeting new people to the island that had just arrived here 20 minutes into their stay, and just kind of slowly welcoming them into this amazing place.

CONAN: And this is a category of job, Alain De Botton, that's I guess called the service industry. Few of us get to do it in such a pretty place.

ANNA: Yes, exactly, and I couldn't imagine doing it in any other place now.

Mr. DE BOTTON: I think what's interesting about the service industry is that when I was writing the book, I spent a lot of time with my children, who are very small. They're like 2 and 4, and one of their favorite games is serving people.

They love nothing better than to put some food on a tray and walk around with it and say, you know, do you want to eat this? And they want to feed people. And sometimes we think that service jobs are right at the bottom of the economy and somehow not that high status, but I think that this is completely wrong.

I think that to serve, for one human being to serve another human being, this is one of the highest of callings, if you like. You know, this is something absolutely essential to what human beings want and need. The satisfaction is not for the person who is served but for the person who is serving because it's what we need to do, you know, to make others happy and to bring them something. This is so key to satisfaction in a job.

CONAN: Anna, thanks very much, and make mine a double.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANNA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Sara(ph). I find this topic to hit home because most people found my job kind of strange. For several years, I specialized in making miniature trees for architectural models. Yes, tiny trees. I worked for a small company and once built a model that would affect the development of my own neighborhood. I don't think of myself as an artist, which is what I went to school for, but I find peace in working with my hands. Now that I've been out of work for a couple of months, I wonder, what do you do for an out-of-work miniature tree-maker? Wish me luck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DE BOTTON: Absolutely.

CONAN: That kind of specialty is going to be hard to place at the unemployment office.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right, but you know, unemployment touches on something so interesting because we do live in this culture where your job is your identity. So what happens when you're an unemployed tree-maker, you know, and people say what do you do?

You almost have to say, I don't exist until I'm doing that work again, which seems really painful and really horrible. And I think in the current economic climate, we have to leave some room in our imaginations for the fact that people are not just their jobs, that the job you do might be - you know, the really interesting question is not to ask somebody what job do you do but what job would you like to do? What is your dream? Because that gets much closer to people's real identity.

We always have to - must bear in mind that people are not necessarily doing - that they aren't necessarily their jobs. Their job is - you know, their dream job is much closer to who they really are, in a sense.

CONAN: And I'm going to ask Alain De Botton and our listeners to bear with me a moment. I'm going to read a little bit from his book.

It was in the 18th century that economists and political theorists first became aware of the paradoxes and triumphs of commercial societies, which placed trade, luxury and private fortunes at their center while paying only lip service to the pursuit of higher goals. From the beginning, observers of these societies have been transfixed by two of their most prominent features: their wealth and their spiritual decadence. Venice, in her heyday, was one such society, Holland another, 18th-century Britain a third. Most of the world now follows their example.

Their self-indulgence has consistently appalled a share of their most high-minded and morally ambitious members, who have railed against consumerism and instead honored beauty and nature, art and fellowship. But the premises of a biscuit company are a fruitful place to recall that there has always been an insurmountable problem facing those countries that ignore the efficient production of chocolate biscuits and sternly dissuade their ablest citizens from spending their lives in the development of innovative marketing promotions.

They have been poor, so poor as to be unable to guarantee political stability or take care of their most vulnerable citizens, whom they have lost to famine and epidemics. It is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, while the self-centered and the childish ones have, off the back of their doughnuts and 6,000 varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yeah, that's the defense of the modern economy, that of course, you know, shopping malls, you can feel this is all decadent. And in the current economic crisis, a lot of people are saying this is call for a simpler life. You know, let's throw away luxury. Let's throw away decadence. And you know, I think we all sometimes, in some moods, sympathize with that but there's one thing you always have to remember, which is that decadence, if you like, is paying for a lot of very nice things. And we would lose that, you know, at a real cost.

So it's just - I'm just trying to point out the debt that many of the things we really value owes to some of the things that we think of as, you know, really a waste and, as I say, a kind of decadence.

CONAN: To meaningless products and soul-crushing jobs.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Patrick's(ph) with us from Denver.

PATRICK (Caller): Oh, Neal, it is my distinct pleasure to speak with you finally.

CONAN: Thank you.

PATRICK: No, the pleasure's all mine. Yeah, I'm a used-parts truck driver in the state of Colorado. I drive all over the state, as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, as far south as Colorado Springs.

CONAN: And what is it that people don't get about your job?

PATRICK: That it's easy; it's not. If - I almost wish I were in a big rig because at least, you know, you have certain, you know, you have certain expectations. People will not respect you as a driver when you drive a box van like I do. It's an eight-cylinder box van that's about 20 feet long, and basically people really think you go slow, and they'll just pass around you and blow you, you know, blow you off the road if they can.

They see you as a slow vehicle. But it's not necessarily easy because you have to not only be able to negotiate traffic at the same rate of speed that everyone else does, but also be able to be safe and punctual and especially respectful to my individual clients. And anyone who works in the auto industry out there should know that sometimes it's a rough biz, you know, trying to make people happy, especially when it comes down to giving them parts that, necessarily speaking, most people would not, you know, think to - you know, I mean, find a value in.

But I mean, I'm able to be palatable to the common body shop guy who's just getting himself started, immigrating to this country, all the way up to a guy, you know, buying a used part for his $40,000 Avalon and being able to sit across his desk and be just as cordial and - yeah, and that - I mean, just necessary for the job, and that's - and meaning - you know, regardless, like find nothing but fulfillment in that meaning.

CONAN: And Patrick, let me ask, do you pick up these parts at a big warehouse and then deliver them to small businesses around? Is that what…

PATRICK: Actually, how it works is that we do own a salvage yard and basically we're six guys who basically, you know, we, you know…

CONAN: Oh, if somebody calls and says, I need a, you know, piston for a '65 Chevy or something?

PATRICK: Well, we're more an import. But I mean, yeah, basically the same thing. You know, you want a control arm for an '89 Honda Accord, all the way up to, you know, a $2,000 small transmission computer for, you know, for an Avalon. It doesn't matter, you know, from top to bottom, inside and out, 5 bucks to 5,000, you know, whatever is going to, you know, save you that much more money, not put something, you know, else out there in the environment that has to be made new.

CONAN: And Alain, this is part of the invisible lubrication that makes the society work.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, one of the themes that's really strongly coming in from all your listeners is just how much work there is in everything. You know, there's almost nothing you can lay your eyes on that has been made by another human being that hasn't involved almost extraordinary labor, self-sacrifice, diligence. And you know, the result of all of this is a kind of respect.

You know, too often we don't have enough respect for the work that went into the world that we use and walk through. And you know, often when you see people on vacation, you can despair of humanity and people are, you know, looking kind of decadent and not particularly nice.

But when you see people at their work, you see almost anybody doing work, it's hard to hate anyone because they bring to that work a level of respect that is just so central to what it means to be human.

And it's, you know, I'd use the word beautiful to describe that feeling you get when you observe somebody at their work doing it well.

CONAN: Patrick, thanks for the call. Drive carefully.

PATRICK: Anytime. Thank you, guys. My mom is going to be very proud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye.

PATRICK: Thank you. Again, we're talking with Alain De Botton about his new book, "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work." Part of the book, the pleasures of this book, are the stock that it's printed on and the gorgeous photographs that accompany the essays that are written; it's well worth taking a look at even just in the bookstore.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email that we have from April in Detroit. I've been a nonprofit fundraiser for many years. My family and friends have no clue what I do, how hard I work, what it takes to secure gifts from donors. It is a long process and requires a great deal of time, meeting and talking, developing a relationship, which would inspire someone to give to my cause. I am hung up on, yelled at, ignored for all the joy of that one person who answers the phone or is interested in meeting me. Every day is a challenge. But the cause I raise money for makes a difference in our future; it is all worth it.

This is one of those jobs that we look at, we don't have any particular understanding of it. You spent a chapter re-creating the day in an accountant's office.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right. I was challenged to do - to focus on accountants because, of course, people always say if you're an accountant, that's a boring job. It's almost like a joke, boring job. And that seemed to be impossible. How could it be that boring?

So I decided to apply to an accountancy firm, and spent about four months shadowing a group of accountants as they went about their work. And it was fascinating. I mean, so many things about corporate life are fascinating.

One of the things I was looking at was motivation. How do you keep a group -these are 10,000 white-collar workers - how do you keep them motivated? Now, you know, in the olden days, motivation was simple. All you needed to do - all you needed in order to motivate your workforce was a whip. You literally just hit people harder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DE BOTTON: For thousands of years, that's all you needed. Nowadays, most jobs, you can't do them well unless the people doing them in some way enjoy them. You're just going to get a bad result. And so that's given birth to the art or the pseudo-science of management. You know, that is what management is. Management is how do you get people to like it.

And so, I spent time looking at the HR department and how all that works. And I think that in the best, most advanced offices, you get a kind of level of civilization and conflict resolution that is way ahead of private life.

You know, I used to come back from this accountancy firm, come back to my own domestic life and think, my goodness, you know, where's the HR department to try and sort out some of the mess and the chaos?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DE BOTTON: So I think, you know, how a large office works is just absolutely fascinating.

CONAN: We'll tell Sue Goodwin she can put the whip away. But I did want to ask you, while you're at the cookie factory, where they actually make the cookies, in Belgium, you visit an art museum and you look at the 17th century paintings that celebrate the lives of ordinary workers in that day, and wonder why it is that we don't look at the accountants and the truck drivers and the airplane pilots in the same way as those artists look at the gleaners.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yeah. I mean, I think the reasons for that are several. I mean, first of all, there's a kind of - a sort of philosophical reason, which is that we tend to believe that real life isn't our - isn't in our work. The most important things are personal relationships, relationship to nature, to God, you know, things outside of the workplace. It's odd that the thing we spend most of our time doing oddly has kind of a low esteem, low estimation at some level. But there's also a more practical reason.

Our artists - and a lot of the way that we understand the world is through artists, through painters, photographers, writers, filmmakers. A lot of these artists don't get to spend much time in work. I mean, the writing world, where I'm from, you know, most writers have not worked properly. They've maybe had a temporary job at Starbucks while waiting for the agent to call from New York. But basically, you know, they've not seen - they've not looked at their career in a sort of 45-year-old - 45-year sort of perspective. And it means that our art is curiously empty of some of the richness of the working world.

You know, when was the last time that you read a really great book actually describing what people are doing? You know, this has gone missing. There's a silence about this. And it's very sad because we're not finding ourselves in the works of art that we look at.

CONAN: Alain de Botton, we just have about 30 seconds left, but we are asking our guests what they're reading this summer. So if you could give us some clue what's on your reading list as you plan to head for the beach maybe?

Mr. De BOTTON: A wonderful book that I'm recommending to everybody is a book by Brian Hayes, a writer for Scientific American, who wrote a book called "Infrastructure."

And it's kind of on the themes that I'm really interested in. It's basically a description of how all the stuff works. So he's got a chapter on the postal system, he's got a chapter on the radar controls and all - focused on the United States. It's a beautiful and interesting book. So Brian Hayes' "Infrastructure" is something I'd recommend.

CONAN: And we're going to collect all of these on our Web site so people can check them. Thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. De BOTTON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Alain de Botton is the author of "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work." He joined us from the studios of the BBC in London. If you want to read more about the pleasures and sorrows of the cargo ship Goddess of the Sea as it makes its way from Asia to the Port of London, head over to our Web site at npr.org.

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