I bought this book on a whim, since it seemed to be about something that I trouble to think about quite a lot – the disappearance of religious belief and what, if anything, should replace it. It was a well justified whim; this is a lovely, mellow, intriguing book.
Perhaps best to begin with the author’s style. I read his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and enjoyed it so much that I sent it to my brother, since it was written with the gentle but telling irony so familiar to him. The format of Pleasures and Sorrows is similar to this book – clever and thoughtful pieces of writing, interleaved with black and white photographs that complement the text and, actually, illustrate its meaning. There must be a name in the publishing world for this sort of book, so different from the ‘plates’ approach, where pictures are stuck in the middle and need to be referred to by some sort of process that takes you out of the flow of the text. The pictures here are not ‘plates’, printed on a glossier type of paper, but just photographs or photomontages printed as if it was all part of the same, seamless weave.
But the writing style is also consistent. Deep, observational, factual and, well….philosophical. De Botton is, at least in the UK, seen as that rarity: a thinker or public philosopher. Each short section contains a few sentences of aphoristic prose, some of which really make you sit up and take notice. For instance:
- Most people are at best embarrassed and at worst angered by religious exhortations in signs or in leaflets. I know I am. But we are actually bombarded with messages from companies telling us to behave differently, to value ourselves and other things differently, to hold particular attitudes. But we do not object to this at all. Why?
- Museums and galleries carry out some of the same roles, in modern secular societies, as churches. They are places for reflection and the contemplation of depths and perspectives outside our daily experience. But they are organised in accordance with academic categories, like ‘Early Renaissance" or “Cubism and Dada”. Why not arrange objects or artworks in line with the meanings and purposes they share, like ‘insights to the self’ or ‘mankind’s place in the cosmos’? Would this not serve these needs for contemplation and perspective more adequately?
- Religions of all kinds use institutions to promote, reinforce and control their teachings. Yet the secular equivalent, an ethical world view or a philosophy of life, is left to the a cottage industry of individuals. So a Kant or a Neitzsche communicates through a handful of obscure books, read by a few academics. While the Catholic Church deports vast resources over millennia. Could the secular thinkers not do with some institutional support, too?
So, a nicely written, thoughtful book, enjoyable to read and very thought provoking. Recommended.