Review of Alain De Botton’s “The News: a user’s manual”

We all have to eat every day and most of us eat at least three to five times a day, so no one would be surprised if you told someone that you were going to take stock of your dietary intake. Whether it’s active dieting or just eating healthily, it’s healthy to look at what it is that we’re consuming, whether we’re having too little or too much, or whether or not we’re consuming the right things?

As Alain De Botton prepared to write his 2014 book “The News: a user’s manual“, he recognised that when it comes to consumption, the news plays almost as ubiquitous role in our day to day lives as food does. Whether it’s flicking through a broadsheet over breakfast, listening to the radio in the car, checking up on the latest online, or watching the evening news on TV, we constantly consume what the news has to tell us. But do we regularly take stock of this diet? Do we cast a critical eye at the news and ask whether we’re consuming too much of it and whether or not the news we do consume is healthy? These are some of the questions that De Botton considers in this intriguing book.

In chapters looking at Politics, World News, Economics, Celebrity, Disaster, and Consumption the author encourages his audience to think about what is being said, what is ignored and what underlying agendas appear for both the producers and the consumers of news. De Botton notes “The noblest promise of the news is that it will be able to alleviate ignorance, overcome prejudice and raise the intelligence of individuals and nations”, yet, quoting Gustave Flaubert, he claims “now the press has made it very possible for a person to be at once unimaginative, uncreative, mean-minded and extremely well informed. The modern idiot could routinely know what only geniuses had known int he past, and yet he was still an idiot – a depressing combination of traits that previous ages had never had to worry about. The news had…. armed stupidity and given authority to fools.”

De Botton challenges both the media and consumers to broaden our minds when it comes to the stories. Whilst Afghanistan is a place of war and suffering, it is also home to thirty million people, and many lives in that country are shaped by more than just their experience of war. Media photography can corroborate a story (If President Trump is giving a speech, we have a picture of the President speaking) it can also play a revelatory role, capturing the emotion of a speech, or more of the context around an address. Economic reports might boil down to the strength of the dollar and our GDP, yet Alain says “the numbers and graphs in financial news are only ever a shorthand for the stories and images that we need in order to understand the world we have built. Business is ultimately too interesting and too significant to be described only for the sake of those who want to invest in it.”

From a Christian perspective, De Botton is on public record as being an atheist, yet his respect for religion, even in this book is clear. His willingness to look beyond the surface level, to ask deeper questions and to be self-reflective is a healthy model for the Christian, even if the final conclusions he comes to may differ to ours.

When we come to the end of the book, if we applied every suggestion that De Botton makes, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else in our lives. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to adequately reflect on everything we see and hear. Nevertheless, much of what De Botton says in worthy of deeper consideration; he writes in a warm, engaging and readable manner, and accepting that not every idea will resonate with every audience, there are still plenty of gems to be found for anyone willing to have a look. Not only did this reader enjoy reading the book over the summer holidays, I think I might come back to it again in a year or two’s time!



Summer Reading

So you have a week set aside to sit by the beach, relax & flick through a good book? Maybe you’re heading up to the mountains to escape the heat (good luck, 32 degrees in Katoomba this weekend) with a picnic and a romance novel?

This is the lovely time of year where businesses slow down, holiday leave is taken and all of those books you intended to read during the year pop up as viable possibilities for a little January relaxation.

But what to read? Is this the time that we start to feel guilty about how often (or little) we read our Bibles, so we come together with a grandiose plan to sweep through from cover to cover? Truth be told, this rarely works well. To start with, there’s a lot to take in when we’re reading the Bible, this is why we spend our lifetime immersing ourselves in God’s word.  Secondly, it’s not all an “easy read”. Let’s not kid ourselves, some books of the Bible, like Leviticus, can be hard work to get through. The grand gesture to read through the whole Bible often falls short a couple of books in.

So what to do? I’ve got three suggestions for you.

1: Don’t feel guilty for reading fiction. It can actually be a really valuable thing to do.

2: If you want to read your Bible, why not find a way to pace yourself and make sure you get the maximum value out of it.

3: Remember, there is lots of other great material out there that Christians can read for their edification!

How about I expand a little on each thought.

1: Don’t feel guilty for reading fiction. It can actually be a really valuable thing to do.

The great American author and pastor, Eugene Peterson once wrote about how he diarised at least one hour a week for reading his favourite author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Not only was it valuable downtime for him, but the Russian Author’s sense of imagination and wonderful use of language opened Peterson’s mind to the power of effective communication. He felt more relaxed and he felt encouraged to try and capture a little of Dostoyevsky’s grandeur in his own writing.

Reading fiction is a wonderful way for us to grow in our appreciation for communication and creativity. Whether you like classic Russian authors, whodunnits, or fantasy books, reading fiction reflects, to my mind, a little bit of the creative spark that God has given us. Authors reflect the God who created everything when they create their own worlds, and we show a little of our creative capacity when we imagine those worlds as we read.

With that said, we also have an opportunity, as we read, to think critically about the characters we read, the moral and philosophical assumptions that the characters (or the author) make and how we might take a Christian viewpoint if we were a part of this story. The goal of doing so isn’t to suck all of the joy out of the material we read, but to open our minds to what the things we read say about what we value and where we find true happiness!

2: If you want to read your Bible, why not find a way to pace yourself and make sure you get the maximum value out of it.

We all know that the Bible is actually a collection of 66 books, spanning many human authors (all of whom were divinely inspired) and covering several millennia. It’s a book made up of Law, Historical stories, Poetry, Songs, Prophecy, First Person accounts, all kinds of great stuff. It’s not written in Chronological order either! With so many different styles and with so much content, it’s a book that is worth taking your time over.

It can be really enjoyable to take an individual book like one of the gospels, or a pastoral epistle and read it from cover to cover. They were written to be experienced that way and it gives us a sense of flow. But it can also be worthwhile to take our time, maybe reading a couple of chapters a day and really meditating on what it’s about. There are all kinds of great materials out there to help us do that.

  • Don Carson has written a wonderful book called “For the love of God” that will take you through the whole bible in a year (or two if you only want to do 2 chapters a day instead of 4), with a one-page meditation on a passage each day.
  • I have a good friend who buys short Bible commentaries like the BST series and he reads a commentary in tandem with a book of the Bible.
  • This year I’m doing a Bible reading programme that will take me through the whole Bible in a year, with a different style of writing each day. Pastoral Epistles, Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy & Gospels.

Whatever you pick, it’s worthwhile reading God’s word, and it’s worth giving it a chance to sink in too.

3: Remember, there is lots of other great material out there that Christians can read for their edification!

There is no shortage of wonderful Christian material out there that can help us understand God and the world we live in better. Whether it’s a timeless classic like “The Pilgrim’s Progress“, a 20th Century great like “Knowing God“, or even a piece of Christian-inspired fiction like “The Narnia Series“, there are Christian books on almost any subject, there are Christian stores chock full of great materials, and you have brothers and sisters in Christ who would love to share what they’ve been reading with you too!

This Summer I’ve got two books I’ll be reading.

Sometimes we pick up a book & we can’t rest until we have finished the very last page. On other occasions we need to take our time, bit by bit. Why not pick up a couple of books this summer. Something simple to enjoy, something that expands your Christian world view, and finally, the best selling (and most wonderful) book of all time, the Bible!