Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Book Review - Essays in Love by Alain de Botton

Generic self-help or insightful genius? You decide...

De Botton is one of those annoyingly clever people whose propensity for accurate, insightful thought will make your teeth ache. He is multi-lingual (of Swiss origin), he is remarkably intelligent (having received a double starred first from Cambridge in 1991) and he is ridiculously successful (with five books to his name by the time he turned thirty). But, please, don’t let this put you off. He is also one of the few writers of our time interested in blowing the dust from the stuffy philosophical literature that most of us will never touch, and transforming philosophy into something relevant, helpful, and (dare I say it) fashionable.

'Essays in Love', published in 1993, is de Botton’s first novel. It attracted relatively little recognition in its early days, becoming popular only after the release of the internationally acclaimed 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' (1997). Despite this, it is a good read and an excellent place to start with de Botton and his popular philosophy. It follows the course of a relationship from meeting to heartbreak, with all the niceties and tribulations of love in between. Chapters are short and divided further into concise numbered paragraphs that each relate to one of de Botton’s profundities. And there are plenty of them. Though at times the subject matter is in danger of seeming trite, de Botton writes with an eloquent simplicity and clear sense of direction, making his story consistently engaging. He is insightful and he does at times display an astonishing ability to express the intricacies of romance that leave most of us lost for words, and this saves the story from becoming romantically mundane or intellectually unmanageable, although it will undoubtedly leave those with a better-than-average philosophical intelligence tearing at their hair.

The blurb on the back says that 'Essays in Love', 'will appeal to anyone who has ever been in love’. It all sounds a bit generic, and sometimes it is. But there is something to be said for a man who successfully pulverises centuries of philosophical thought into a snappy modern love story and then sells millions and millions of copies of it in twenty different languages. I’m not quite sure what that something is, but it’s definitely worth a look.

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