[This] new offering is desperately disappointing. De Botton has nothing much to say about status anxiety that hasn’t already been said a thousand times by knowing journalists or populist sociologists. You’ll recognise the tune after the first few notes: we all now live in a meritocracy and that means we are constantly assailed by doubts about our relative status; we all feel that we could do with more loving pats on the back; we all feel that we deserve more respect (Richard Sennett’s wonderfully astute analysis of this concept doesn’t rate a mention). Even when de Botton has taken these familiar points for a long historical and literary walk, he’s still so hard pressed to fill his allotted space that he has to resort to the type of nursery instruction that wouldn’t seem out of place in a De Bono text on thinking.
His book is the work of a schoolboy swot who has read widely, always got his homework in on time, but who has nothing new to give us. Lavishly illustrated and studded with irritating little diagrams and smiley/frowney faces to help us understand what clever Mr de Botton is saying, it is a prime example of a book all dressed up with nowhere to go.
The author condescends to the reader with his simplistic narrative, and yet he is so busy showing off the breadth of his reading he never properly gets to grips with his subject. He has all the references but he fails to do anything with them. We are repeatedly told Interesting Facts about the Greeks or the Romans or the Cubeo tribe of South America but Interesting Facts they remain and are left to lie dead on the page.