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!