"Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first -- the story of our quest for sexual love -- is well known and well charted. . . . The second -- the story of our quest for love from the world -- is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first."
This is a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us, about whether we're judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. This is a book about status anxiety.
Alain de Botton, best-selling author of The Consolations of Philosophy and The Art of Travel, asks -- with lucidity and charm -- where our worries about status come from and what, if anything, we can do to surmount them. With the help of philosophers, artists and writers, he examines the origins of status anxiety (ranging from the consequences of the French Revolution to our secret dismay at the success of our friends) before revealing ingenious ways in which people have been able to overcome their worries in the search for happiness. We learn about sandal-less philosophers and topless bohemians, about the benefits of putting skulls on our sideboards, and about looking at ancient ruins.
The result is a book that isn't just highly entertaining and thought-provoking, but that is genuinely wise and helpful, too.
This sophisticated gazebo of a book is the latest dispatch from the Swiss-born, London-based author of the influential handbook How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (1997). Promising to teach us how to duck the "brutal epithet of `loser' or `nobody,' " de Botton notes that status has often been conflated with honor and that the number of men slain while dueling has amounted, over the centuries, to the hundreds of thousands. That conflation is a trap from which de Botton suggests a number of escape routes. We could try philosophy, the "intelligent misanthropy" of Schopenhauer, for who cares what others think if they're all a pack of ninnies anyhow? Art, too, has its consolations, as Marcel found out in Remembrance of Things Past. A novelist such as Jane Austen, with her little painted squares of ivory, can reimagine the world we live in so that we see fully how virtue is actually "distributed without regard to material wealth." De Botton also discusses bohemia, the reaction to status and the attack on bourgeois values, wisely linking this movement to dadaism, whose founder, Tristan Tzara, called for the "idiotic." The phenomenon known as "keeping up with the Joneses" is nothing new, and not much has changed in the 45 years since the late Vance Packard, in The Status Seekers, wrote the definitive analysis of consumer culture and its discontents. But even at the peak of his influence, Packard was never half as suave as de Botton. (A three-part TV documentary, to be shown in the U.K. and in Australia, and hosted by de Botton, has been commissioned to promote the book.) Lively and provocative, de Botton proves once again that originality isn't necessary when one has that continental flair we call "style." Agent, Nicole Aragi. (June 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.