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30th April
2010
written by Steph

Do any of you remember the kerfuffle a year ago when Alain de Botton left incendiary comments on a New York Times reviewer’s blog?  I remember reading about the scandal with great interest, mostly because I couldn’t get over how ridiculously over the top it was for an author to write on someone’s personal site: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude." Amazing. Needless to say, I thought de Botton’s behavior and handling of what he felt was an abysmal review (which by my reading was actually measured and fair, if not effusive and overwhelmingly positive) was completely out of line and extremely childish. His tantrum probably brought more attention to the “offensive” review than it might have otherwise received, and his response was so disproportionate that it just made him look kind of insane. But perhaps in the end there’s no such thing as bad publicity, because the one thing that scrap achieved was that I was suddenly aware of Alain de Botton, something that had not been true previously.  And so, when I was at McKay’s a few months back browsing the stacks, his name jumped out at me, and I admit to being curious and picked up his debut novel, On Love (also known as Essays in Love in the UK and Europe). I mean, you pick up the book and see if you can walk away from something that opens like this:
The longing for a destiny is nowhere stronger than in our romantic life. All too often forced to share our bed with those who cannot fathom our soul, can we not be forgiven if we believe ourselves fated to stumble one day upon the man or woman of our dreams? Can we not be excused a certain superstitious faith in a creature who will prove the solution to our relentless yearnings?
Go on!  I dare you! Oh how I wish On Love had been a pompous bore!  Instead, it was actually pretty wonderful, and now I must begrudgingly toss some respect de Botton’s way.  It’s an interesting little book, as it uses the progression of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman as the basis for exploring the ins and outs of love in a more philosophical manner.  The book is laid out like a philosophical essay cum logical argument, with numbered paragraphs, something I got a kick out of.  I guess this is my year of exploring books that play with form.  I found that the fictional narrative and the philosophical musings flowed rather seamlessly into one another. I have to say, I found this book utterly charming… and really insightful!  There were so many times while reading when I found myself nodding my head saying, “I’ve done exactly that!” or “I’ve felt the exact same!” when thinking about past relationships.  I think we all have this tendency to think we’re unique, that our love stories are truly our own, that no one else could understand them.  And yet, de Botton does get it.  He’s able to talk about the idiosyncrasies of love in this wonderfully universal way; he takes the emotional and the irrational, and tackles it from a theoretical and logical groundwork, and it really works.  From the disillusionment we feel when we realize that the object of our affection is not really the other half of our severed soul but a person in his own right, to why we give nicknames, to the heartbreak at the end of a relationship, de Botton is spot on through the whole thing. It’s a very clever book, but I never felt it was overly self-conscious (save for one rather tongue-in-cheek moment at the end, but I quite liked that bit!) or pretentious.  The writing is very good, playful and poetic, though I must warn that this isn’t a book one can idly read.  It demands your full attention, since the fictional narrative meanders and peters out and the philosophical bits aren’t something you can skim or read with one eye on the page and the other on your dinner.  Like love itself, this is a book that must consume you for the time it snares you in its grip.  I’ve said it before, but I’m not really one who gets off on lengthy philosophical pontifications and arguments, but de Botton makes all of this really accessible and relatable to the common reader.  Perhaps part of his success is taking a topic – love – that we can all identify with and all hold dear to our hearts.  I don’t purport to understand the alchemy behind it, all I know is that this is a lovely little book to treasure and to read again and again.  Mercurial as love with its highs and lows, I feel like it has a little something for everyone and will likely bring a knowing grin to your face.  I can’t say that this necessarily makes me want to tackle anything else by de Botton, only because I think I wouldn’t love anything else by him as much as I did this.  But who knows?  All I can say with certainty is that this is one book that I’ll read over and over again. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

18 Comments

  1. 04/30/2010

    I have The Art of Travel sitting on my bookshelf and I’ll confess to being a bit intimidated by it. And, like you, I was wondering if I really wanted to read a guy who attacked a reviewer like that. But now it sounds like I need to give Alain a chance.

  2. Alain de Botton
    04/30/2010

    Thanks so much for the positive message. I can only apologise for the lines that I left on my reviewer’s blog last year. I can feel that this seemed like a truly vile thing to do – and I do apologise that it came across that way, it was certainly not meant to achieve the importance it subsequently assumed. I feel very ashamed of myself. There is nothing to say in my defence, other than that the internet is a devilish medium for broadcasting to millions and for posterity the ill-thought out thoughts that might otherwise be spoken to someone and forgotten and patched over in a few minutes. You are not dealing with an author who is especially vile and vindictive, merely one who idiotically failed to grasp that every word typed on the internet might be one that he will have to standby for the whole of one’s life.
    As for other books of mine, I suspect from what you say that you might well enjoy The Art of Travel.

  3. 04/30/2010

    Steph, I do remember that incident very well, and remember being quite shocked. That being said, this book definitely sounds like something that would interest me. The mixing of the philosophical insights with the narrative sounds like it could really go either way, so I am glad to hear that it was successful in this book. I also like that you mention that de Botton has a really wonderful grasp of his subject, and despite the fact that I hadn’t really ever heard much about this book before, I will be looking for it now! Wonderful review!

  4. 05/01/2010

    If you loved this, you might just like Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. But this is a semi-informed opinion: About three years ago, drunk from reading Barthes [the gasps and the sighs after every page], I was hunting down de Botton. I saw the book at a bookstore, but I was a lowly college scholar then, and couldn’t afford it, so I put it back.
    Damn it, I really shouldn’t have. I should’ve ran straight to the cashier and went hungry for a week.
    I am still hunting this book down. I am so envious right now, if you must know, hahaha.
    Alain de Botton, in his Twitter, once said, “Beloved books: a fragment of me in the words of another.”

  5. 05/02/2010

    I’ve only read one thing by by Alain de Botton – ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ – and I quite liked it. Came across as a guy with a sense of humour; had no idea he was the type to leave venomous and spiteful comments on his critics’ blogs.

    Also, is the above comment by some random masquerading as ‘Alain de Botton’, or does this guy actually Google his own name into search engines?

  6. 05/02/2010

    @ softdrink: I am glad I gave On Love a chance, because I did get great enjoyment out of it. I think the incident I mentioned in my post was really unfortunate, but I think it was also done in a moment of passion and shouldn’t be used to define de Botton. At the very least, I don’t think it should be used as a the determining factor for whether to read his book or not!
     
    @ Alain: Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Perhaps I should have mentioned in my post that you did apologize for the comment! I think really your personal experience was a valuable cautionary tale for all of use, reminding us that we aren’t just writing into a black box when we post our thoughts and words on the internet. I often forget that myself when I write reviews of books, and while I always try to be fair in my appraisals, I generally fail to realize that person whose works I’m discussing could very well read my words. I hope my post encourages others to try this book, because I really enjoyed it.
    And thank you for the recommendation for “The Art of Travel” – I will keep an eye out for it.
     
    @ zibilee: I’m really glad I didn’t let one incident prevent me from reading this book because it is something I will now treasure. I think you’d get a kick out of it too, so do try to get a copy!
     
    @ Sasha: I love that Twitter message! How lovely! And thanks for the recommendation for Barthes – I will be sure to find myself a copy! Mind you do the same with this one!
     
    @ Tuesday: I think a lot of authors have Google alerts that let them know whenever they’re mentioned out in the interwebs. Or maybe de Botton is a S&TI! fan! 😉
    Also, I should point out that de Botton did apologize for his actions, and I think it’s clear he’s embarrassed about the whole ordeal. Nothing ever dies on the internet, but I’m glad I didn’t let that incident prevent me from trying something by him. Hopefully you can still respect and like The Consolations of Philosophy!

  7. 05/02/2010

    I am willing to give the author a try as he has apologized and also left a humble comment above. So now I will add this to the wish list. All the things you said about the book sounds like it is indeed a wonderful read.

  8. 05/02/2010

    Oh! It actually is him? I thought it was just lame spammage by some bored person. I’ve gotten weird spammish comments from ‘Virginia Woolf’ in the past. The things people do on the net…

    And all that behind-the-scenes bitchiness aside, the book itself sounds really intriguing. Esp. because I’m finishing off Kristin Lavransdatter at the moment. Playful with form is exactly what Sigrid Undset is not.

    Anyway, thanks for the review! Might order this from the Book Depository =)

  9. 05/02/2010

    I haven’t loved every de Botton book I’ve read, but I did really enjoy The Art of Travel. I’m also curious about his Proust book, having read a good bit of Proust!

  10. 05/03/2010

    @ claire: Yes, I think de Botton is genuinely apologetic for the remarks and how his behavior was perceived by other, so I’m really glad I gave this book a chance. I mean, even if he had been a huge jerk, it’s a great book! I know you’ll LOVE it!
     
    @ Tuesday: I think you would really like this book a lot, actually! And I think it would be an immensely refreshing change from KL, at the very least! I admire your perseverance, but remember: reading can be fun! 😉
     
    @ Dorothy: I’m definitely pushing The Art of Travel up on my list of books to seek out! I read some excerpts through Google Books, and it does sound similar in style and scope to this one, so I think I’d like it. Plus: I love to travel!

  11. 05/03/2010

    One of the bonuses of readingthe old classics is the authors I read are dead. Don’t have to worry about people being offended.

    Interesting story about that review and exchange. It’s easy in the internet world to offend and be offended. When I first started blogging, I admit I found myself worrying constantly by the negative comments I received. I’ve since discovered the need to balance my reviews (saying “I personally disliked this” rather than “This book is a waste of paper” for example).

    As for this particular author, I’ve seen the name around so I should look in to him some day. Thanks for this.

  12. 05/04/2010

    @ Rebecca: Yes, there is something nice about writing without any fear (or hope!) that an author will read your own words. I’ve never had an author approach me because of something negative I wrote, but even when I get a pat on the back for something positive, it gives me a moment’s pause. I always forget that anyone can access what I write, and while that’s probably the best way to write something that is honest, it can be sobering to be reminded that I’m not just writing on my laptop privately.

  13. 06/03/2010

    Has anyone seen the film MY LAST FIVE GIRLFRIENDS that’s based on ON LOVE?

    I watched it last night on Video On Demand through Tribeca Film. I thought it was great!

    Check it out http://www.tribecafilm.com/tribecafilm/My_Last_Five_Girlfriend.html?

  14. 06/03/2010

    @ Emily: Thanks for the recommendation. I had heard that an adaptation of the book had been done, but swiftly forgot about it… I’ll probably check it out when it comes to Netflix.

  15. Perl Numquist
    07/06/2010

    How delightful and amusing to see an apology from Alain himself: We all have moments of poor judgement, especially when fuelled by the protective insticts for something we hold dear like our work.

    I have read all of Alain’s books, bar “Proust” because I feel i should first read Proust himself in the original French to gain maximum benefit and frankly, my French is not up to it. Hence, I shall probably bar myself from this potential joy indefinitely.
    But the “Art of Travel” is a companion to me on my business travels (not quite the same, i know, but relevent nonetheless) and the “consolations of Philosophy” was actually truly a consolation to me in a time of darkness. Also, an enlightenment of its own: it has caused me to maintain a good-natured difference of opinion of the nature of philosophy with my most valued friend: I like pragmatism, he says it should be “for its own sake”.

    “Status Anxiety” is a most helpful guide to the folly that seems to beset humanity in its striving. This is particularly relevent in these interesting economic times, i feel and helps one to avoid falling into certain traps of snobbery and materialism.

    I would conclude my rather verbose ramblings by saying I found all of these books to be pragmatically useful and at the same time accessable to those, like me, whose education was not literary but who nevertheless seeks enlightenment on interesting but dimly understood themes.

  16. 07/13/2010

    @ Perl: Thanks so much for commenting! And thank you for all your insight into Alain’s back catalog. I actually have picked up a copy of The Art of Travel, and I really am looking forward to delving into it at some point. I’ve already dipped into the beginning, and I am pretty sure I will love it. I’m sure I’d be open to perusing the other titles you mention should I be lucky enough to stumble across them in my bookstore peregrinations!

  17. taryn
    09/05/2010

    FYI, apart from the UK and Europe it was also published in Canada as “Essays in Love” (and features a much nicer cover) 🙂

  18. […] & Tell by Alain de Botton – Ever since I read and LOVED On Love last year, I’ve been jonesing to try more de Botton. Especially his books about love, because […]

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