The pop philosopher and litterateur muses on the daily grind in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Reviews, p. 41).
Why the switch from philosophical rumination to reportage on the workplace?
My inspiration was Richard Scarry's children's classic, What Do People Do All Day? I wanted to write an adult version, partly because I've enjoyed reading it to my son. I also wanted to write in a literary way about something that literature normally overlooks. In most novels, people don't really go to work; they spend all their energies falling in love and sometimes murdering one another—whereas what most of us do is, precisely, go to work.
You examine a range of occupations, from tuna fisherman to rocket scientist to painter. If you had to do one of those jobs, which would you choose?
Rocket scientist. You work in very large teams on very small problems over many, many years; it's a job where the ego is not particularly strong. It's the opposite of writing, really.
You write poetically about warehouses and of power-transmission towers. What draws you to industrial infrastructure?
Its ubiquity, and its mystery. The landscapes we've made in the modern world are pretty strange. We don't understand them. We think, “I don't know what's happening in that warehouse. I don't know what that box is by the side of the road. I don't know where that lorry could possibly be going. And what are these guys doing in the middle of the night in that office?” I try to answer those questions, to make us more at home in a world that can seem confusing.
You compare the modern office to a medieval cloister. Why?
There's the strange, desexualized atmosphere of offices, where company rules of conduct completely outlaw any sexual activity—one of the few places in the modern world where that's the case. I made that comparison to suggest that in a society where the worship of God was the most important thing, you didn't want anything interfering with that worship. Similarly, in a society that worships efficiency and productivity and money, you don't want [sex] to interfere with that.
What are the travails of your own work?
The only journalists that businesses like are those they can handle cozily, so reporting on workplaces is incredibly difficult. A great challenge of writing the book was, simply, how on earth do I get in these places and have a look around? Threats of lawsuits and just plain “get out of here” happened on many occasions. I had six rejections from big accounting firms—but fortunately, there are quite a lot of [accounting firms], so eventually I found one that was amenable.