“Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.”
–Alain de Botton, The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work
It was a week of meeting heroes. The writers whose work you read and feel like yes, they get it–that they’ve just explained the world in a way that couldn’t make more sense or resonate any deeper with your own sensibilities.
Two weekends ago I was in Copenhagen for the Travel Bloggers Exchange’s first conference in Europe, taking a two-day workshop with travel writer Andrew Evans. I’ve loved following along his journeys since early this year when I found out about his Bus2Antarctica trip: 42 buses, 10 weeks, and 3,500 tweets of Twittering his way from DC to Argentina to Antarctica. Sitting in his class was surreal–seeing the person you’ve watched in videos posted from the road suddenly right there in front of you, talking about what makes a good story and walking alongside us to Copenhagen’s main rail station to get ideas for a piece. Weird.
And then, last weekend, I had the chance to visit the seaside village of Southwold where the Ways With Words literature festival was taking place. As I said in an earlier post, there was one name on the event’s docket that drew me there: Alain de Botton. And apparently an event hall packed with grey-haired retirees had been drawn there, too. I felt like a little kid that had been dropped off to hang out with Grandma and her friends all day.
When Alain came on stage, it was that same strange moment of seeing someone in the flesh who has before existed only on paper and in videos. His session was focused on his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and he talked–among many, many other things–about the minutae of office life, the search for meaning in the modern world, and the idea of the sabbath as a check to megalomania, that we as humans are tempted to think that we run the world, but that–perhaps surprisingly–the world doesn’t fall apart if we stop working. Of course there’s always something more that we can do, but we have to acknowledge our limitations. The world is bigger than we are.
And he was incredibly funny about it all, slipping in witty jokes and asides that the audience loved. I think I missed at least five punchlines because of their laughter, predicating his jokes. One of my favorite lines was:
“To announce to the world that you’re in the wrong job is almost as painful as coming out. You gather your loved ones around to tell them, everyone’s looking rather nervous, and your sister runs upstairs weeping.”
As usual, I had pen and paper out during Alain’s talk and even dared so much as to take a photo during the question-and-answer at the end. And–as always–I was amazed at how powerful the presence of a notebook is. From my tour of New Zealand’s Parliament building to the Colonial Cottage Museum in Wellington to a visit to White Island volcano, taking notes is about the surest way of attracting attention. “Are you writing for school?” I was often asked in New Zealand. But here in Southwold, the question was, “Are you a journalist?” At least three people stopped me after the session. “Are you a reporter?” one woman asked. I assured her I was not and she said, rather disappointedly, “Oh, I thought I might see the photo in the Standard tomorrow.”
One day, right?
On my way out of the festival, I weaved through the crowds gathered in the anteroom where all of the speakers’ books had been set out. Alain stood behind his book table and just as I passed by, there wasn’t anyone speaking with him. “What the heck?” I thought and, shocking even myself, strode right up to him, thanking him for his talk. He was incredibly humble, asking me questions about where I’m from and what I do. When I told him I study in London, he asked, “Were you in the neighborhood today then?”
“Well, not really,” I said, intimating that I’d come just to hear him.
“Wow, I’m honored.”
Well, what can I say…you’re Alain de Botton?