Why de Botton (and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work)

Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work has two wonderful passages on page 27: the first, concerning ship spotters—or those who watch and log ships coming in and out of a harbor:

They behave like a man who has fallen deeply in love and asks his companion if he might act on his emotions by measuring the distance between her elbow and her shoulder blade.

The ship spotters focus on statistics in large part because statistics can be found more readily than, say, aesthetic theories, or meta ideas about why we like spotting, or statistics, or fountain pens. Why do some of our activities, like ship spotting, dwell in the countable, while others, like love, tend to dwell in most people’s minds in the land of emotion? I say “most people’s mind” because some writers, like Tim Harford in The Logic of Life, have brought game theory to bear on love in the group sense in order to see what one might see.

De Botton has a partial answer:

It seems easier to respond to our enthusiasms by trading in facts than by investigating the more naive question of how and why we have been moved.

He’s right, and I think this is why many book blogs tend pay disproportionate attention to, for example, the publishing industry or a writer’s habit than the works that the industry publishes or that the writer writes. It’s simply easier, to steal de Botton’s accurate word, to deal with systematic issues than to analyze why de Botton’s simile of the lover works so well, which at bottom might be simply “because it does,” or an unattractive analysis of how something is both like and unlike something else. Like explaining a joke, such an analysis might render the subject being analyzed dead, and thus no longer worthy of analysis.

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