When I was 13 my father went to Cali, Colombia as American Consul. My mother was a member of the book club, which worked like this: each member would undertake to read a book and report on it at the next meeting. The books, I think, were bought out of membership subscription to the club, and became club property, which any member could borrow. The collection was housed in our day, courtesy of my mother, in the Consular Residence. (This strikes me as a much better system for a book club than the common model, under which a group of people settle on a single book and discuss it; my sister spent years in a club thanks to which she either a) could not read what she liked because she had to finish, as it might be, Ya-Ya Sisterhood for the book club or b) had demoralising discussions with people who did not like All the Pretty Horses (her selection) because they would not normally read books about cowboys.)
The result was that we had a large, miscellaneous library of Book Club books that did not belong to us, but which I could read whenever I liked. Among these was a substantial collection of books by Agatha Christie. Cheek by jowl, you understand, with Tristes Tropiques, The Raw and the Cooked, Territorial Imperative, Nicholas and Alexandra, I forget. The result being that by the age of 14 I had read pretty much everything Agatha Christie had ever written. (I would love to say that I was devouring Levi-Strauss at the age of 13, but honesty compels.)
The recent exchange between Alain de Botton and Caleb Crain, anyway, brings to mind this early reading. For those unfamiliar with the Christie oeuvre: one of Christie's crime-solvers was an elderly spinster, Miss Marple, who lived in the village of St Mary Meade. Londoners came down to the village, imagining that its inhabitants enjoyed an existence of placid, idyllic tedium - little guessing that they had nothing to do but spy on each other and gossip about it. The blogosphere does sometimes have a way of putting the village into the global village.
Gossip gossip gossip. AdB left a comment on Crain's blog. Was this out of line? Was the review really as bad as all that? Meanwhile the subject of the book and the review drops out of sight.
The review begins with this sentence: Work is activity that earns money.
So. Right. Say I start work on a novel. I have no way of knowing whether this is work or not! If I finish it and a publisher takes it on I then know that it was work, because I got paid. If I finish it but can't get it published it wasn't work. If an endless succession of timewasters disrupt, to the point where the book is never finished, none of the time I spent on it counts as work, because I can never get paid for it. Uh huh.
Or. I have a child. If I stay home to look after it, this isn't work, because I'm not getting paid. If I bring in a babysitter, however, the same activity counts as work because money changes hands. Uh huh.
Or. I'm 14 years old. I am legally debarred from performing tasks for money for more than a few hours a week. I am legally required to go school five days a week; if I want to qualify for decently paid labour somewhere down the line, I must carry out assignments at night and on weekends in addition to the time served in the classroom. But it's not work, because I don't get paid. What the teacher does is work, because s/he gets paid; if a parent comes in to help out in the class, on the other hand, this isn't work, because-- Uh huh.
Or. I'm a slave. I was captured in West Africa and taken in a ship to America and sold at auction. For the rest of my life I shall be required to pick cotton for my master, but it isn't work, because-- Uh huh.
Or. I'm not a slave, per se, I'm just an intern. I [work] for a company that has worked out that it can keep costs down by having a layer of unpaid persons doing what people used to get paid to do, by making this the entry-level position through which entry to doing the same things, only for, um, pay, is normally-- Uh huh.
Bourdieu talks at one point (sorry for bloggy vagueness, my books are in the other apartment) about the acquisition of a view of labour as something that is exchanged for a monetary reward, how ill this sits with certain cultures. He speaks of the indignation of a Kabyl father when a son asked to be paid to do tasks that would traditionally have been performed as matter of course by a junior member of the family at the request of the head of the family. That is, the question of whether an activity enters into a system of economic exchange depends very much on its cultural context; to state that an activity counts as work in virtue of successfully entering into such a system begs pretty much every question worth asking. (The UN Declaration of Human Rights outlaws child labour and slavery, and guarantees freedom of association; it includes the right to education; that is to say, it guarantees to every child the obligation to work without pay in a compulsory social setting till the age of majority by excluding school attendance from the categories of work and forced association.)
AdB cites Updike's requirement that a reviewer be fair. It might be better to ask reviewers to be useful. AdB's book has been written and published; it is too late for AdB to read Bourdieu et al. and bring their work to bear on his own. If someone who took the time to write a book on the subject of work missed seminal work on the subject, it's reasonable to suppose that the average reader of the NYTBR may also have missed this work; the reviewer could helpfully bring this work to bear. If the reviewer is himself unfamiliar with this work he might still be of some use if he were to give the subject two seconds' thought.