If you’ve not come across him before, Alain de Botton is an interesting man. The Wikipedia entry for him describes him as a “writer, philosopher, television presenter and entrepreneur”, and he certainly has been involved in a surprisingly broad scope of work thus far. Educated at Harrow, Cambridge, and Harvard, he is certainly a philosopher, though he has largely shunned ivory towers and chosen to work in more mainstream forums. He has also turned his hand to a surprisingly broad array of disciplines, including co-founding an investment firm and starting the educational institution / movement The School of Life.

Much of his work focuses on stressing the vital importance of philosophy to everyday life. For example, tired of the narrow, self-serving, and largely depressing output of the popular press in the UK, he recently launched The Philosophers’ Mail (cleverly styled to look like the Daily Mail’s awful online site) which, according to the site “is a new news organisation … run and staffed entirely by philosophers. It is committed to bringing you the latest, biggest stories, as interpreted by philosophers rather than journalists.” I heartily recommend you check it out; it certainly provides an alternative and thought-provoking news experience.

On Love by Alain de Botton

Now, the reason I mention all this here is that I have just read a novel by Alain de Botton entitled On Love.

This was Alain de Botton’s first publication, and, as the title suggests, it is really an exploration into the nature of romantic relationships. In fact, the book itself is a clever marriage of philosophical text (complete with numbered paragraphs, diagrams and scientific formulae) and classic romance narrative. In it, we follow the relationship of the narrator with Chloe, from the romance’s inception to its heady peak, through its demise, and ultimately, its breakdown.

The book is very enjoyable and for the most part de Botton manages to balance being serious and insightful with providing an engaging and often very witty text.  However, instead of writing too much about the novel, I thought that I would give a taste of what it is like by presenting you with some of my favourite snippets:

Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone who can understand what we are saying in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved.

The more familiar two people become, the more the language they speak together departs from that of the ordinary, dictionary-defined discourse. Familiarity creates a new language, an in-house language of intimacy that carries reference to the story the two lovers are weaving together and that cannot be readily understood by others.

Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we won’t find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything within it will somehow be free of our faults. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through our union with the beloved hope to maintain (against the evidence of all self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species.

The most attractive are not those who allow us to kiss them at once (we soon feel ungrateful) or those who never allow us to kiss them (we soon forget them), but those who know how to carefully administer varied doses of hope and despair.

The language of the eye stubbornly resists translation into the language of words.

Everyone returns us to a different sense of ourselves, for we become a little of who they think we are. […] It is my absurdest side that an absurdest person will draw out of me, and my seriousness that a serious person will evoke. If someone thinks I am shy, I will probably end up shy; if someone thinks me funny, I am likely to keep cracking jokes.

We long for a love in which we are never reduced or misunderstood. We have a morbid resistance to classification by others, to others placing labels on us (the man, the woman, the rich one, the poor one, the Jew, the Catholic, etc.). To ourselves, after all, we are always unlabelable. When alone, we are always simply “me”.

At the end of a relationship, it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches.

I wished the pain to last forever only so as to be connected to Chloe via its burnt nerve endings. Only by my death could I assert the importance and immortality of my love, only through self-destruction could I remind a world grown weary of tragedy that love was a deadly serious matter.

Must being in love always mean being in pain?

From reading the above excerpts, I suspect you will quickly decide whether this is your kind of book or not. For my part, I certainly enjoyed it, and there are many perceptive well-written passages. I also felt that de Botton had successfully used the narrative form to explore his topic. My major criticism, however, is that the book presents a fairly narrow and somewhat depressing view of romantic love; that it is entirely emotion-driven, and therefore only likely to ever last as long as the initial feelings of euphoria do. This seems to me to be a fairly shallow and immature view of the nature of love.

At any rate, On Love is an interesting and unusual read, and one that will get you thinking.