The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton; Pantheon, 269 pages ($26.95). Swiss/English public intellectual Alain de Botton exists in a rather wonderful middle ground between post-Barthes philosopher and Sunday supplement thinker. He insists on finding his subjects in the everyday reality we live with – travel, sex, religion, architecture – and then applying the skills of an analytic intellectual in the most seemingly practical and quotidian ways. The epitome of Bottonism would, I suppose, be the perfect Botton title – “How Proust Can Change Your Life.”
Here is a provocative and idiosyncratic book for the exploding world of digital information in the 21st century. “News” or something that calls itself that – has never been so ubiquitous and enveloping in the world. Every so often – if we’re feeling particularly restless, we might only manage 10 or 15 minutes – we interrupt whatever we’re doing to check the news. We put our lives on hold in the expectation of receiving yet another dose of critical information about all the most significant achievements, catastrophes, crimes, epidemics and romantic complications to have befallen mankind anywhere around the planet since we last had a look.”
Why? What are we doing? Who is supplying the news? How are they doing it? And what does it mean? What are the consequences? Is it a new “faith?” Practical philosopher Botton touches on them all.
Botton examines 25 archetypal news stories to try to “complicate a habit that, at present, has come to seem a bit too normal and formless for our own good.”
Take, for instance, celebrity news. “The impulse to admire is an ineradicable and important feature of our psyches.” If self-elected “elites” ignore it, “then the role of anointing celebrities will fall to organizations entirely untroubled by the prospect of appealing to the lowest appetites.”
The celebrity interview, he decides, needs to be redesigned. “We should treat them as case studies to be pored over … with basic questions in mind: ‘what can I absorb from this person?’ … In the ideal news service of the future, every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education.”
As is, I suppose, Botton’s book.
– Jeff Simon