So banal as to be parodic

I’m reading a wicked review of Alain de Botton’s new book in The New Republic, by Victoria Beale. She explains about “The School of Life”…

The self-declared mission of the School is to provide an enterprise that will “direct you toward a variety of useful ideas … guaranteed to stimulate, provoke, nourish and console.” The School’s shop has a few lightly stocked book-shelves (Oliver James, Paul Theroux, Italo Calvino, and, of course, the complete de Botton bibliography), while in its downstairs classroom, the School hosts talks that are a mixture of book-promos (“Steven Pinker on Violence and Humanity” to sell copies of The Better Angels of Our Nature), schedule fillers (an eight-week course on “Mindfulness,”), and champagne tastings…

At a more moderate cost, the publications from The School of Life imprint further the same basic project: bring brisk, philosophically inflected practicality to universal dilemmas. There have been six books published in the series so far, one written by de Botton, the rest adopting his authorial technique. How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry, epitomizes the worst tendencies of this formula: it amounts to little more than philosopher name-dropping with poorly written exegesis. “Socrates stated that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living,’” she writes. “This is an extreme stance, but I do believe that the continuing development of a non-judgemental, self-observing part of ourselves is crucial for our wisdom and sanity.” The whole book is composed of this kind of grinding obviousness, bizarrely sprinkled with a King Lear line, a Martin Buber quote, or a Wagner reference.

Perry’s sentences are often so banal as to be parodic: “A group of people I find I always learn from are children, as they can offer us fresh eyes on the world and a new perspective”; “When I go away on holiday to a new place I feel refreshed by having been stimulated by new sights, smells, environments and culture”; “Each of us comes from a mother and a father, or from a sperm bank, and each of us was brought up by our parents or by people standing in for them.” The clunking truisms seem intended to give the book a straightforward tone, but instead leave the prose sounding lobotomized.

I found that too funny not to share.



  1. Mattir says

    Alain de Botton functions best as a Very Guilty Pleasure. Sort of like the Clan of the Cave Bear novels, Downton Abbey, and Wayne’s World movies.

  2. Tim Harris says

    His books leave you feeling lobottonized in my experience. In which connexion, did you ever get through Jonathan’ Haidt’s book? As I think I said earlier, I ended up haidting it.

  3. says

    No, I didn’t. I was never fully convinced that I wanted to, and then I started Thinking Fast and Slow and decided I didn’t want to at all. TFS is fantastic, just as J and M Author said the other day.

  4. says

    I’ve got to get in on this pop philosophy scam! “i believe that children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.” or how about “Each of us comes from a mother and a father, or from a sperm bank, or from a cabbage patch or delivery stork, and each of us was brought up by our parents or by people standing in for them, or possibly but rarely by wolves or aliens.”

    And I shall call my program “The Shrubbery of Learningness”

  5. Stacy says

    I get a guilty pleasure out of despising him. He’s so veddy pretentious. And elitist. And vapid.

  6. says

    And I shall call my program “The Shrubbery of Learningness”

    and it shall be declared good

    in the sight of all the vapid and pretentious

    and Mary and Matthew shall exchange agonized looks


  7. Rodney Nelson says

    Philippa Perry opines:

    “I have noticed, as I play Bridge or Scrabble against a computer, or Sudoko for an hour at a time, that my emotional side feels cut off.”

    I’ve noticed this as well. I feel great ennui whenever Ms. Perry plays computer games.

  8. Mattir says

    But I ENJOY deBotton and Downton Abbey and Clan of the Cave Bear books.

    It’s just that it’s mostly vapid nonsense written at the intellectual level of a bright ten-year-old kid, which is fine if that’s what you’re in the mood for.

    And I do always have to be grateful to deBotton for getting me through DaughterSpawn’s pubertal years – she read Consolations of Philosophy when she was 11, and then while dealing with some horrifying new body change or other, snapped at me “THIS IS EXACTLY THE SORT OF STUFF THAT MONTAIGNE COMPLAINED ABOUT!” And she was right, and it helped her feel a whole lot better. It’s not particularly grown-up intellectual material, though.

    My favorite “pop philosophy” book really isn’t all that “pop” – Sisela Bok’s book Happiness is excellent, but not at all well-known.

  9. says

    Oh I don’t consider Sisela Bok “pop”!

    I enjoy parts of Dntn Abbey, but my god there’s a lot of absurd melodrama, and the snobbery sets my teeth on edge. But anyway it’s the cult of it that annoys me – everybody carrying on as if it were the best thing since Jane Austen wrote Moby Dick.

  10. brucegee1962 says

    The thing I like about “Downton Abbey” is that (in the inverse of what Fox News said) the utter pointlessness of the entire lifestyle is so achingly clear. I think we’re meant to see how none of these people contribute one useful thing to society, and some of them are sloooooowly beginning to get an inkling of that. It’s like watching the Titanic — you know the ship is going to go down, which makes all the pretentiousness bearable.

    And I love the actor who plays Lord Grantham — he constantly has this gobsmacked expression on his face, as if he’s been handed down a jeweled box from his ancestors and been told to guard it as the most precious thing in the world, but when he opens it he finds it’s got nothing inside but sand and dead leaves.

  11. ismenia says

    I was reading an article by Alain de Botton’s in the Independent last night. It sounded like an atheist version of a stereotypical Church of England vicar.

    If that makes sense.

  12. Mattir says

    Downton Abbey is most fun if you have a grasp of how the clothing and landscaping are done and are interested in social/technological/fashion history (the story is utter rubbish, except for the Dowager, who is absurdly wonderful). Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels are great for their oddball descriptions of how stuff one knaps flint or weaves baskets or whatever. De Botton is good for the occasional clever turn of phrase, comparison, or story, which can sometimes (as with DA or COTCB) lead one to explore something one hadn’t been curious about before.

    They’re all basically advertisements for other interesting things to learn about.

    (And I’ve been thinking way too much about this over the last 24 hours.)

  13. says

    The Dowager is indeed fantastic. But there are other pretty good characters – but oh my god the Turkish diplomats dropping dead immediately after raping the weirdly compliant virginal heiress, and the valets framed for murder, and the heir tragically paralyzed and then whoops all better now, and the heir’s betrothed cheerily dying of the flu to make way for the no longer virginal heiress and her distant relative deciding to leave all his money to – deep breath – the heir who sadly didn’t love his betrothed after all so she died of a broken heart but – oh joy! – she took a minute to write a letter to the distant relative first to tell him the heir didn’t love her after all but it was OK AND HE WAS SO NICE ABOUT IT and the distant relative explained all this to the heir because he knew the heir would have pangs of conscience –


    Do admit.

  14. Mattir says

    Since we’re only at the end of Season 1, I’m thinking we have a lot to look forward to. I’m wondering how I can slashfic in some “Ayla and Jondalar hunt the wooly rhino.” And then some pompous drivel about Socrates and drinking Nesquik at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’ll all be very very meta.

  15. ismenia says

    I read the Clan of the Cave Bear series as a teenager and recall that its sequels were particularly good for sex scenes. My sister was horrified when she heard me refer to the series as “Sex in the Stoneage” because my mother and grandmother read them. She still hasn’t grasped that my grandparents didn’t have their five children by parthenogenesis.

    I recall that 1-3 are pretty good, 4 less so and 5 better than 4 but not as good as the early ones. I don’t know whether I would enjoy them as much now. My mother informs me that 6 is pretty good and the author doesn’t wax lyrical about Jondalar’s manhood.

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