Recently, my daughter asked me to rewind the car radio so we could hear a song again. I was forced to explain the rudimentary technology known as broadcast, which doesn’t obey your commands so much as spray out an ignorant blast of waves in every direction. Her confusion at this ludicrously antiquated format led me to describe a battery of outmoded gadgets, like stationary telephones and bulky, blurry TV sets.
As strange as it felt to ramble on about the bad old days, it was striking how vividly the major technological shifts of recent years could be encapsulated in the little inconveniences of the recent past. History textbooks, with their broad strokes and sweeping generalities, may one day refer to advances in the digital realm without ever evoking how humans once awoke not to soothing forest sounds from an iPhone but to the screeching and honking of a clock radio, its alarm apparently designed to re-create the sheer panic and dread incited by a WWII air-raid siren.
Among those authors dedicated to evaluating the peculiarities of everyday life, Alain de Botton is perhaps the most stubbornly devoted both to the blanket statements of textbook generalists and to the tiny, illustrative details of the storyteller. What other author would dare to write books on philosophy, romantic love, architecture, travel, social status, and work, illustrating each grandiose proclamation on society and culture with carefully chosen dramatic close-ups and evocative micro-examples? In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009), de Botton evinces the dehumanizing efficiency and head-spinning scope of the global economy in the melancholy comings and goings of a London shipyard, where transoceanic ships arrive without fanfare, carrying “running shoes, calculators, fluorescent bulbs, cashew nuts and vividly coloured toy animals.” He then zooms in on a foreman at the shipyard, who “hands a Filipino crew member a sheaf of customs forms and disappears without asking what dawn looked like over the Malacca Straits or whether there were porpoises off Sri Lanka.”
For all his dyspeptic studies of the good life gone wrong, de Botton is first and foremost a romantic. Like an oversensitive child, he sees sorrow in a tin of biscuits, discovers frivolity in an exterior Ionic column, and finds an odd kind of inspiration in the death of Socrates. He has a seemingly inexhaustible passion for charting the ways that societal and economic pressures leach the enchantment from our everyday lives. And even as he doggedly surveys the complicated ripples of the modern experience, underscoring the injustices, the shortsighted delusions, and the myopia of our times, de Botton always holds out hope for improvement.
If the textbook generalist has a weakness, though, it’s a tendency to take on subjects that are overly broad by nature, and to tackle them with such bluster that their subtler shades are lost amid a flurry of bold statements. This is the primary trouble with de Botton’s latest offering, The News: A User’s Manual (Pantheon, $27). Unlike his previous explorations of love, status, and architecture, de Botton’s deconstruction of current journalism eschews subtlety and exuberance and longing from the very start. Instead, de Botton offers up a bevy of moralistic prescriptions about how news makers should reshape the news in order to inspire hope and curiosity instead of fear and dread. Strangely, though, he doesn’t sound all that hopeful or curious in these pages; he abandons his role as the good life’s starry-eyed advocate and becomes an ornery scold, prone to restating the obvious at every turn.
According to de Botton, the news “cruelly ignores the project of consolation” and instead focuses on corruption, disasters, mishaps, and economic minutiae, all without honoring complexity or teasing out the important lessons therein. He decries journalism’s endemic lack of “coordination, distillation, and curation”—a failing that leaves readers despairing and confused. Confronted with an inert torrent of so-called facts, he argues, the audience for news is left with “an impression of our nothingness in an unimprovable and fundamentally chaotic universe.” What’s more, journalists “sidestep complexity and careful explanations,” giving readers the sense that issues aren’t “being dealt with swiftly or decisively enough for the simple reason . . . that we are ruled by crooks and idiots.”
It seems, in other words, that our favorite oversensitive child has unexpectedly given up painting pretty pictures in favor of pouting. De Botton appears to take little delight in his work here. Instead of analyzing the specifics of a news story and then presenting an alternative form of storytelling, or using colorful firsthand reporting or concrete examples to underscore the gnat-straining nature of the news-gathering business at large, de Botton recurs to sanctimonious abstractions. It’s as if perusing a cavalcade of stories about corrupt leaders, murderers, and disasters has left him too exhausted to do anything but retreat into portentous vagaries and nebulous generalizations.
And speaking of generalizations, it’s tough to discern what, exactly, de Botton means by “the news” in the first place. By repeatedly quoting The Guardian, the Daily Mail, and the New York Times, does de Botton really mean to ignore the multiplatform media gargoyle in favor of newspapers and TV newsrooms? When so many seem to get their news from the mouth of Jon Stewart, doesn’t it require a certain suspension of disbelief to focus primarily on the priorities of CNN or Forbes? When de Botton asserts that “the news should help us with our feelings,” is he referring to the LOL button or the WTF button on BuzzFeed? He does briefly discuss the frenzy to continually update news reports online, as well as the personalization of news via digital filtering tools. (Both are practices that he finds dangerous, since “we risk cutting ourselves off from information that might be deeply important to our evolution.”) These cursory examples seem to imply that de Botton is using the term “news” to mean “all of it”—and this maneuver feels more than a little lazy here, particularly given the imprecision of his expansive but vague assessments and recommendations for reshaping modern journalism.
If the world of The News involves a hint of imagination, it doesn’t turn up in de Botton’s evocative prose; his flights of fancy turn ploddingly prescriptive here, as he delivers a lofty vision of journalists serving as gentle self-help gurus rather than purveyors of fact. The news—that nonspecific blob that de Botton repeatedly treats as a kind of omniscient, sentient being—should “highlight the virtues and flaws of all that has become too present and too ubiquitous for us to see.” Rather than focusing on disasters and evil, de Botton argues, “the news should perform the critical function of sometimes distilling and concentrating a little of the hope a nation requires to chart a course through its difficulties.” The news, in other words, needs to be a little less Rupert Murdoch meets Darth Vader, and a little more Barack Obama meets Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Because de Botton’s analysis rests on a willful misunderstanding of what “the news” actually is and how it functions, using this wishful “User’s Manual” to navigate the news is likely to feel a little bit like driving across America using only a Candy Land board for a map. Stories about scandal, for example, boil down to teachable moments for de Botton: “The only honest purpose of unearthing and publicizing error is to make it less prevalent.” Consumer-news sections should include, along with fashion or travel recommendations, suggestions that readers listen to a certain piece of music or study a school of philosophy that matches their particular needs, thereby “present[ing] us with a range of both conceptual and material options.” Celebrity news, likewise, offers an opportunity for personal self-improvement. “We should treat [celebrities] as case studies,” de Botton writes, “to be pored over and rigorously dissected with a basic question in mind: ‘What can I absorb from this person?’” Because “in the ideal news service of the future,” he explains, “every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education: an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to become a slightly better version of oneself.”
“What about cultural journalists?” wonders the cultural journalist. Their work, according to de Botton, has no higher artistic purpose or creative value; they should mainly supply a steady stream of thumbs-up or thumbs-down appraisals for their readers. And rather than offering highly subjective attacks of “inferior works,” which merely serve as “a diverting spectator sport,” cultural journalists should limit themselves to recommending works “that would be of genuine benefit” to specific individuals for specific reasons, thereby “taking on the role of the dispensing pharmacist of mankind’s most powerful therapeutic medicine.”
In order to test this thesis, let me offer a de Botton–ized and homiletic reengineering of this column. Do you prefer that every story about politicians like governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell wrap up with simple pointers on how you might avoid scandal in your own life? Do you crave less Gawker-style snarkiness in your celebrity reporting and more long-form features on Angelina Jolie’s unparalleled parenting skills or Tom Cruise’s pursuit of better living through cult indoctrination?
Above all, does reading the news leave you feeling angry, envious, and depressed? Do you tend to blame these feelings not on the sorry state of culture, society, or humankind, but on the poor taste and triviality of journalists themselves? If so, then Alain de Botton’s The News is exactly the sort of soft, pillowy bosom upon which your exhausted, world-weary head seeks rest.
And if none of these preferences and feelings apply to you? Well, you are left to admire de Botton’s romantic sense of the world from afar, leaving his utopian dreamscapes to the world’s oversensitive children, who may be better equipped to savor such empty sweets.
Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).
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