ALAIN DE BOTTON has become the self-help guru to the British middle-class—a life coach pitched at those who might read The Guardian on an iPad, buy ethical chocolate, and assert an interest in the Booker shortlist. If you’re a certain kind of amateur intellectual with self-improving impulses, it’s less vulgar to entrust your anxieties to a Cambridge- and Harvard-educated pop philosopher who speaks three languages than to the hearty exhortations of Tony Robbins or Oprah. Oprah asks the right questions, says de Botton—“how do we live with other people, how do we cope with our ambitions, how do we survive as a society”—but she “fails to answer them with anything like seriousness.” Enter Professor de Botton. But if the latest publications from his “School of Life” imprint are the current course curriculum, truth-seekers would be better off reading O magazine.
De Botton’s breakthrough book was How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), an effort to combine Winfrey-like wisdom with philosophical depth. As its title suggested, the book took passages from The Guermantes Way and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and sifted them for Proust-approved guidance on friendship, living life in the present, or self-expression. It was the first successful outing for the Alain de Botton formula: mine the work of a great thinker for choice quotations and slot them into a beguilingly simple frame—“How To Be Happy In Love,” for example. There were follow-up questions, too: “Did Proust have any relevant thoughts on dating?”
“One must never miss an opportunity of quoting things by others which are always more interesting than those one thinks up oneself,” de Botton quotes the novelist in Proust, and this adage became the organizing principle of his subsequent work. The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), delivers potted summaries of Socrates, Epicurus, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, structured around subjects like “Unpopularity” or “Not Having Enough Money,” or the brilliantly catch-all “Difficulties.” De Botton eventually became something of a middle-class lifestyle sage, producing: The Art of Travel (2002), Status Anxiety (2004), and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009)—literary-lite guides to living with just enough to tickle the brain without actually taxing it.
Since 2008, de Botton has also presided over The School of Life, both a publishing imprint and a physical space near Russell Square in London. 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. “There are as many kinds of fizz as there are of parties,” advises the materials for this course, and promises a “consideration of the origins of bubbles, the meaning of happiness and the strange connection between the two.” A one-day class—such as, “A Voyage in Epicuriosity with Jenny Linford,” which traces “a history from school dinners to wedding parties”—costs £150 (roughly, $240).
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.
The author’s apparently robust mental health also makes her a dubious expert on her topic; no psychic discomfort more serious than indigestion seems to have troubled Perry. In one anecdote, an interior design magazine tips her equilibrium: “I felt dissatisfied. I found I was dreaming of replacing all my furniture. What was I doing? … I was breathing shallowly.” So Perry puts the magazine down, goes for a swim, and all is right. But, wait, she has darker moments: “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.” Those with more complex neuroses may find themselves less than convinced by the transformative power of Perry’s exercises.
High-culture allusions, in keeping with the de Botton mold, do little to redeem Perry’s work; they merely highlight the slap-dash nature of her writing. “With one glance, one sniff, the right brain takes in and makes an assessment of any situation,” Perry writes, continuing, “As the Duke of Gloucester says in Shakespeare’s King Lear, when he looks about him: ‘I see it feelingly.’” The quotation is a total non sequitur, and Perry seems to know this; she drops the reference without further ado. Name-dropping, however, continues: “Self-observation is an ancient practice and it has been called many different things. It was advocated by Buddha, Socrates … and Sigmund Freud among others.”
The School of Life series is in somewhat more capable hands when its founder takes the reins. But de Botton’s latest contribution, How to Think More About Sex, brings out his worst tendencies: a tone of wry knowingness that skirts humour without ever actually being funny. The entire introduction is composed of sub-Wildean half-witticisms. On the liberation of human sexuality during the twentieth century: “Sex came to be perceived as a useful, refreshing and physically reviving pastime, a little like tennis.”
Then there is the relentless urge to lean on those who’ve proved themselves more “interesting.” To explain how sex declines within marriage de Botton writes, “repudiation of lovemaking [by a married couple] may thus be likened to a mountain climber’s or a runner’s not wishing to luxuriate in the lyricism and hypnotic grandeur of a great poem, perhaps by Walt Whitman or Tennyson, just before scaling a peak or starting a marathon.” Everything is wrong here, the logic, the assumptions, the contortions to mention Whitman and Tennyson. Not even a quote, just a shout-out to ensure that we are aware of every last volume on the author’s bookshelf.
Reading these “How to” guides makes you want to spurn their feeble advice—to hyperventilate over an interior design magazine, quit exercise entirely, or have shameful, dysfunctional sex. More than anything, though, they make you want to read Tolstoy, Orwell, and Shakespeare, in the original. Perhaps the only upside of de Botton’s gutting of the classics is that it might drive readers back to the works themselves. Anna Karenina and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff both have their virtues, but a book that mashes literature together with peppy self-actualization, as de Botton demonstrates, can only be a middlebrow mess.
Victoria Beale has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, and the Economist. Follow @victoriabeale.