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I loved this book so much that when I left the review copy on a plane, I scoured the bookshops of Palo Alto to buy another.
In part, that was because the gentle wit of the philosopher Alain de Botton made what threatened to be an irritating panegyric so enjoyable to a purveyor of the dark craft of journalism, such as myself.
And in part, it was because de Botton slyly manages both to critique the shallow, manipulative ways of the news agenda while also suggesting that much of its appeal lies in its ability to give shape and meaning to our own, far more ordinary lives than those described in the pages of most news publications.
He also manages, for 255 pages, to come up with an endless supply of entertaining examples of the sorts of news he’s talking about.
For example, he identifies in his preface several classics of the genre: man falls asleep on a motorway overpass and crashes onto a caravan below, killing a family of five; a murder in which the victim is “found in pieces in the truck of a minicab”; a story that “rehearses the particulars of an affair between a tennis coach and her 13 year-old pupil.”
“These occurrences, so obviously demented, invite us to feel sane and blessed by comparison,” writes de Botton. “We can turn away from them and experience a new sense of relief at our predictable routines, at how tightly bound we have kept our more unusual desires, and at our restraint in never yet having poisoned a colleague or entombed a relation under the patio.”
He skewers the reader too, cheerfully admitting tedium at a story on council housing rent reform as an example of “headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged.”
“Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organisations of modern democracies.”
In the same edition, he notes there’s a “story about an incestuous cannibal in Australia that requires no effort whatsoever. Perhaps one is, at heart, a truly shallow and irresponsible citizen.”
Part of the problem is that there is no shortage of newsworthy facts.
“The issue is not that we need more of them, but that we don’t know what to do with the ones we have.”
And while Hegel may have argued that the news has replaced religion in modern society, religion repeats just a few messages to drum into us certain behaviours. The news, by comparison, bombards us with so much useless knowledge that it often provokes inertia – or rage.
“In hock to the excitements and commercial advantages of rage, the news cruelly ignores the project of consolation,” writes de Botton, who touchingly suggests that the news should adopt such a constructive agenda as part of its reason for being if it’s not just to be a blight on our tempers.
However, the news is unsympathetic to the truth that “it would be impossible for anyone– not just this fool or that group of cretins – to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle.”
He picks apart the journalistic conceit that he calls “gaffe journalism”, where a momentary lapse into stupidity by a normally sensible public figure becomes the news, simply because it’s so easy to do.
De Botton is particularly and enjoyably brutal in revealing to a new generation of readers that hating the media is a hardy perennial pursuit.
Gustave Flaubert, the 19th century author of Madame Bovary, hated the news so much that he came to believe the only people capable of having ideas of their own were the illiterate, since the news was producing a new kind of idiocy actually created by the distribution of pre-digested knowledge.
“Flaubert hated newspapers because of his conviction that they slyly encouraged readers to hand over to others a task that no honest person should ever consent to offload onto someone else: thinking.”
That struck a chord. I’ve often suspected I became a journalist because I didn’t believe what I read in the paper. The News, A User’s Guide, has helped confirm that prejudice while putting a smile on face at every page.
by Pattrick Smellie, BusinessDesk
Pattrick Smellie is a journalist, so he presumably knows what he’s on about.
The News: A User’s Manual
by Alain de Botton
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd