Monday, September 14, 2009

When Reading is a Lot Like Work

“The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”
By Alain De Botton
ISBN No. 978-0-7710-2603-4

“Historic Maps and Views of Paris”
By George Sinclair
ISBN No. 978-1-57912-798-5

By Chuck Palahniuk
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66629-9

“Sips and Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers”
By Kathy Casey
ISBN No. 978-0-8118-6406-0

“Night: A Literary Companion”
Edited by Merilyn Simonds
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-396-7

No one really enjoys their work. Why else would homemakers – those people in charge of flirting with the mailman and making sure Oprah has on what the TV Guide said she’d have on – tally up how much they’d be paid if making a home were real work? Reading “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” feels like work - specifically morning at the office. It’s slow, plodding and has one major point to make (just like a university’s philosophy textbook). Listen: if you don’t know where a book that starts off with a chapter titled “Cargo Ship Spotting” is going then you deserve to keep working until you’re 105 years old. On one hand the author is mocking the worker bee for not smelling the flowers and on the other he’s saying you can get pleasure from your work if you just snort enough philosophy. Oh, there’s stuff to enjoy here: deep, dense thoughts, big questions, long walks (by the author) to wonder what it’s all about. What it’s all about is if this book were a wanted ad in our freefall economy it’d be looking for a very select audience: working people who aren’t tired of someone else telling them what to do or why they’re doing it. Communications Majors, please remember to footnote anything you quote from this book properly.
Now, depending on what you think of your job your day will continue in one of two ways. You may daydream about a great holiday in Paris that you can take with the money you’ve earned at work or you may want to buy a gun and thin out the crowd around the watercooler. For the former please refer to “Historic Maps and Views of Paris.” Remember a few years back when engineering blueprints and ancient maps of the world were considered art? HMAVOP is like that except it’s about Paris. This makes sense because with the Mexican health advisory and all, people aren’t thinking of tropical paradise anymore; they’re dreaming about being a stranger in a beautiful bustling city and watching other people go to work in beautiful buildings. The pictures in this book are just lovely; halfway between a watercolour painting and friendly directions to get to the Louvre. (And yes, they are definitely frameable.) However, if your workplace daydreams lean toward starring on the six o’clock news check out Chuck Palahniuk’s “Pygmy” for tips on maximum mayhem. This book is about a totalitarian state youth masquerading as an exchange student to infiltrate the U.S. and blow things up. As with all of his previous books, the premise is the hook and the production is hmm-worthy (some words are blacked out like you’re reading a declassified document; refer to Palahniuk’s “Survivor” – which brilliantly begins with a single man on a commercial airliner that’s about to crash. Of course the book’s page numbers start high and go low). The problem with “Pygmy” is that it continues Palahniuk’s inability to end a novel correctly and that even John Updike – John Updike! - wrote a book about a terrorist so it’s a done topic. “Pygmy” is readable but just too melodramatic in a world where suddenly everything is melodramatic. But then again there’s an excellent workplace message in this book: you can be a really successful writer and still hate the world.
Now, after work you’re most likely going to go home, make a drink and watch “Wheel of Fortune.” That’s where “Sips & Apps” comes in. And while it’ll get you fed and drunk the book will also remind you of great days gone by; that era when people actually liked other people and invited them over for nice, elegant evenings. Everything does look nice here. The food is colourful and fancy and the drinks should have their own best-dressed list. Ironically, the recipes for such well-dressed food and drink don’t read like differential equations; everything seems forthright and user-friendly. This book is about how a nice, classy party restores your faith in the capitalist system – and how if you drink enough you’ll forget about what happened at work. Even better: you can throw out that old, dog-eared cocktail recipe book your parents gave you and replace it with this beautifully produced one.
Okay, so you’re full of arty food and exotic liquor. Now what? Sleep, that’s what! And what better way to drift off than to a few entries from “Night.” Sure, it’s just the inside of your eyelids to you but like your boss yelled at you earlier today to think outside of the box, “Night” suggests a re-thinking of the dark hours by people much more successful than you (you know, the published kind). Night: it isn’t just for binners and racoons anymore. Now, reading any anthology requires a certain amount of patience; these books are kind of like everyone talking to you at once. But what talk! One entry is from a writer noticing a new star in the year 1572. This shiner stood out because, he wrote, “I had, almost from boyhood, known all the stars of the heavens perfectly.” And in a split second you realize how small your cubicle is, how wasteful your distractions of TV and the internet are, and what a grand world it is outside your workplace.