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Books

Book Review

‘The News’ by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton dissects how people get news.

Vincent Starr

Alain de Botton dissects how people get news.

Where do you get your news? (In addition, let’s hope, to the The Boston Globe.)

In the Internet age, with our vast profusion of media options, you likely have a daily menu from which you sample à la carte: You might get your global dispatches and community scuttlebutt from a half-planned, half-random combination of bookmarked websites, social media feeds, car radio pre-sets, local and cable news, late-night monologues, and any number of supplementary sources.

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It’s an information buffet, and you’re free to choose when you’re ready for broccoli and when you’d rather have a cupcake.

To pocket philosopher Alain de Botton, however, “The News” comes not in many shapes and sizes but in one single-minded, deeply flawed model. Why are we so often infuriated, he wonders, by the news, with items ranging from stories about sensational crime and ineffective leadership to celebrity privilege? “The news,” he writes, “will soberly reply that it has no choice. It simply has a duty to tell us ‘the truth.’ ”

De Botton, who established his name with the book “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and has since ruminated on such topics as social status, art therapy, and religion and atheism, claims his book, which blends commentary with photographs and bits gleaned from news sources, “has a utopian dimension to it. It not only asks what news currently is; it also tries to imagine what it could one day be.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have many real suggestions. There are a few: Foreign news could be better contextualized, he writes, so that we might care more about overseas injustices. Puff pieces about athletes and entertainers could include a bit more depth about what makes them sources of our envy. Those are fine points, but they’re not major remedies for an institution in transition.

In truth, the author’s “user’s manual” for the news, organized in thematic chapters with titles like “politics,’' “celebrity,’’ and “disaster,’’ too often feels like the work of a man who would prefer to use his daily paper to wrap his fish and light his fire. “Flaubert hated newspapers,” he writes, apparently admiringly, “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 on to someone else: thinking.”

De Botton’s own thinking, at least on this subject, is woefully short on research. He imagines the “put-upon figure” of the photo editor, for instance, forever lamenting that “[n]o one believes in photography anymore.” Yet he digs no deeper into that strange assertion than to decide, with a stock image of President Obama delivering a speech, that too many news photos are boring.

Occasionally, the author hits upon a nice, poetic idea. He envisions cultural journalism acting as a kind of therapy for humankind, with reviews of music, movies, and books featuring prescriptive tags “comparable to the labels on pill packets.” He empathizes with celebrities who find themselves grappling with the intrusive by-products of fame: “Shepherding a reputation has some of the futility of trying to guide a soap bubble,” he writes.

As for our morbid preoccupation with reports from the tragic side of life — the shocking murders, sex offenses, natural disasters, and freak accidents that we furtively follow: To the author, such stories are our modern version of the memento mori, the human skulls that reminded centuries of Europeans of the fragility of life.

In some sense the news is one long, never-ending saga, filled not just with helpful information on legislation and the weather but cautionary tales, inspirations, and diversions.

In the digital age, it can be redemptive to disconnect from the rush of information from time to time, as de Botton suggests on the last page of this curious book. But he takes that idea a little too far: “A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognize the times when the news no longer has anything original or important to teach us.”

If he thinks that day might actually come, well, I’ve got some news for him.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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