Sunday, April 13, 2014


A book like Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual is hard to review because it defies genre boundaries. As a work of non-fiction, it is both a philosophical treatise and a self-help book.  It is a cultural history, an exposé, and a historical account. It covers subjects as varied as economics, natural disasters, politics, and celebrity. And it is as pessimistic about the present as it is optimistic about the future of the news. The News is a book for anyone interested in the story behind the story: how the news exploits human psychology and how its power over us has the potential to make us better people.

Alain de Botton

The News is also difficult to review because of its unusual structure. The book is comprised of eight large sections, each of which is split into chapters on multiple topics. For example, the “Consumption” section is split into two chapters: “Dining, Travel and Technology” and “Culture.” Each chapter opens with a news item that exemplifies the chapter’s topic, such as a restaurant review, which is followed by numbered, miniature essays. These essays often bleed into one another, but are distinguished by a particular point or argument. In a chapter called “The Details” within the “World News” section, there is a news excerpt from the BBC about the Ugandan government. The next couple of essays go on to criticize, firstly, the news coverage of Uganda—as unemotional and devoid of interest for much of its potential audience—and secondly, the choice of consumers to follow celebrity news more willingly than an unarguably more important piece of world news. Botton goes on to conclude that world news will only “ignite our interest” by not trying to be blindly objective and sterile. By letting the artists and travel writers and poets explore the nuances of a place, they would be able to shed light on the “less obtrusive beauty and tragedy” that makes a country like Uganda more than the latest casualty report. The news should cover real people, and not just the macro-statistics that describe them.

The scope of this humble book is huge. It covers an immense amount of ground in 255 pages that can be read either cover to cover or one section at a time. There is so much information that I had to reread passages just to digest their multiple meanings. Like a scientist, Botton uses firsthand experience to explore how current events are being communicated to the public. He analyzes the results of his investigation and is able to make conclusions about what news actually does and what it should be able to do. The news is not only the main character, but it is simultaneously the protagonist, the antagonist, and the test subject. And Botton is not only putting the news under a microscope, he is examining human behaviour and what it reveals about human nature. An entire section is dedicated to “Celebrity.” After examining the typical celebrities of ancient Greece, Botton illuminates the relationship between the human qualities that a society values and who they choose to emulate. Those ancient Greek statesmen, athletes, and musicians were considered worthy guides to follow. What Botton goes on to criticize is neither that we have celebrities nor that we want to emulate them, but rather that they should be used more productively, “as case studies to be pored over and rigorously dissected with a basic question in mind: What can I absorb from this person”? News coverage of celebrities shouldn’t evoke jealousy or ambition, it should teach us how to be better versions of ourselves.

After reading this book, I felt ashamed of my own habits of news consumption, and rightly so. It made me think of how I consume news—where I get it from, what I click on, what I choose to read—and then what I do with news once I have digested it. Truthfully, I might bring it up with a friend as a topic of conversation, or bring it up on a date to make myself seem smarter, but the reality is that even the phrase “news consumption” is incredibly passive, immature and, in a word, gluttonous. But all of that is okay. By reading this book, I have become more conscious of my own habits. I am more aware of my power as a literate, semi-intellectual citizen of the world. I now realize my responsibility to be an active participant in the news—to take ownership of what I spend my time reading.  Because it matters.

Alain de Botton expresses an infectious optimism towards the future of the news, and the world, that is undeniable. In a later chapter, he states that the reviews made by cultural journalists “should direct our lonely, confused, scared and stricken souls to those works of culture most likely to help us survive and thrive.” As a cultural journalist, I believe that both The News and the news are worth your time.

Michelle Hunniford is a PhD student studying animal behaviour and welfare.  Poultry specialist.  Grammar enthusiast.  Orwellian and Darwinian.

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