Philosopher’s user-friendly guide to news
The News: A User’s Manual
By Alain de Botton Hamish Hamilton, 267pp, $29.99
FOR better or worse, by accident or grand design, Alain de Botton has become the people’s philosopher. This is bad if you want your philosophy dealt with more cerebrally, good if you prefer a more accessible approach. In his bestselling books, de Botton’s mindmatter has comprised topics as diverse as art, architecture, religion, work and love.
The News: A User’s Manual is, in many ways, business as usual for the Swiss-British author. Instead of dense philosophical navelgazing we get focused, bite-sized vignettes packed with digestible detail. As with How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and How to Think More about Sex (2012) the book is presented as a mocked-up how-to/self-help guide with de Botton assuming the role of guru. The trope may be a little shopworn now but fortunately the content of ideas, analysis and argument provides food for thought.
De Botton’s starting point is a kind of mission statement. This book is “a record, a phenomenology, of a set of encounters with the news’’ with a view to finding out what news is today and what it might one day be. (Shortly afterwards, as if to make up for a shortfall in gravitas, de Botton proclaims, a tad loftily, that his book is a “project’’.)
The News unfolds as a newspaper, with de Botton’s chapters taking the form of specific sections: Politics, World News, Economics, and so on. Each chapter features a segment from a real news story — an air crash, a murder, a celebrity interview — that de Botton uses as a springboard to explore its wider picture and evaluate our emotive responses.
The first of such responses is boredom. Apparently we are complacent towards many news stories because we have read it all before. De Botton reels off a list of humdrum headlines before hitting us with “Sydney Man Charged with Cannibalism and Incest’’. So be- gins a study of how headlines are engineered to snag our interest. The more sinister corollary is how news has the capacity to control our feelings, stoking our fears and warping our perspective, building our hopes (anointing a politician as a visionary) and later dashing them (feted politician turns out to be flop).
Consumption of news is scrutinised. Why, according to daily figures for the BBC news website, did the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy secure 5.82 million website hits but conflict in the Congo fewer than 2000? De Botton refuses to blame shallow audiences; rather, it is the fault of news agencies for failing to present news in a compelling way.
This conclusion allows de Botton to distinguish between “ignorance’’ and “indifference’’. He relishes abstract headers. Stories deal with ‘‘particulars’’ or ‘‘universals’’. In a fascinating section on news photographs, he proposes most images are of ‘‘corroboration’’, confirming what we already know, whereas the rarer, more sought-after image of ‘‘revelation’’ advances our knowledge.
The News is at its best when de Botton’s philosophising springs from unlikely sources (weather reports, stockmarket trends, celebrity gossip) and poses big questions: What should the news ideally be? Why do news organisations focus so much on evil and tragedy? He frequently subverts our assumptions and invites us to think differently. Bias, we are told, can be healthy. Dull news is more deleterious than censored news. Celebrity admiration can lead to self-betterment.
However, there are junctures where de Botton’s statements are sweeping (“We are wary of anything ‘exotic’ now’’) and his findings blandly moralistic (investigative journalism ought to “try and improve things’’). Riffs on the purpose of art and pursuit of fame while enlightening are off the beaten track.
The biggest problem, though, is his tendency to substantiate points by assailing us with a maddening barrage of imaginary news stories: ‘‘Our nation isn’t just a severed hand, a mutilated grandmother, three dead girls in a basement, embarrassment for a minister, trillions of debt, a double suicide’’ and on and on. Such itemising illustrates but also grates. His