“Look I think you have to try and change the world…”, Alain de Botton begins, as I meet him in his flat on a sunny Friday afternoon in leafy Belsize Park. He is brisk before the interview starts and once it is over, but charming, and a willing talker.
De Botton’s calls for change are not new. He has spent the past two decades challenging the way we love, read and think. At 23 he stumbled out of academia – double first, history; masters, philosophy – and onto a global bestseller.
The vulnerable Essays in Love made him a publishing star. Four years later, as Tony Blair came to power, he followed it with How Proust Can Change Your Life, the first of what has become many attempts to make grand philosophical ideas relevant to people’s everyday lives.
“If you went to Will Self and said, ‘Let’s try and build a better world’ he’d just go ‘Ah, nah, the world’s grim’.”
In the past year he has turned his attention to three fiefdoms incredulous at the idea they exist to help anyone: art, the media and the Daily Mail. In doing so, he started to address politics and the way it is covered. His polemic on the news has become the pillar of a new media site: the Philosopher’s Mail – “an attempt to inject a little bit of complexity and imagination” into the way big political issues and ideas are covered.
As he puts in his recent book, The News: A User’s Manual, the latest media storm over benefits might mean a lot more to us if it was framed as “part of a hundred-year debate about whether welfare lends its recipients dignity … a single episode in a multi-chaptered narrative that might be called ‘How Subsidy Affects Character’”. In the same spirit, celebrity stories should be an occasion to think about hierarchy and social mobility.
His approach seems to be working. De Botton claims the site now brings in 100,000 readers a day, which would be nearly half as many as read the Guardian in print. It is also a style he thinks most papers are incapable of.
“Most of an average newspaper is written by people whose only skill is the basics of reporting: go to a place, get a quote down, shape it into a thing, bonk a picture and there you go.” There are only “5 or 7 or 8 articles in a day that have actually required some intelligence”.
He thinks talented and available writers are rare; while many may be reading the Philosopher’s Mail, he and his long-time collaborator John Armstrong are writing almost all the posts themselves. “We’ve got this idea that there are so many writers” – but they are finding few for the sums they can offer.
On Russell Brand and voting: “To be honest I don’t think he was thinking that hard when he said that…”
“There’s a manpower problem”, and one de Botton doesn’t think the new wave of media sites has solved.
“Because budgets are low, you get the sort of Buzzfeed journalism, where someone comes along with ‘12 things you didn’t know about Michelle Obama’. Anyone can do that, and whack on a picture, and you get some clicks and it’s looks like everything’s fine, but actually… it’s bollocks.”