book review: The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton

The basics: The News: A User's Manual is a manifesto for what we should want and demand from news organizations, as well as a critique of their current offerings.

My thoughts: I majored in journalism as an undergraduate, and although I walked away from my desire to ever be a journalist, I still have a deep love for journalism. I spend a lot of time with the news, as a consumer and as a critic. I assumed I was the target audience for this book, but de Botton operates under the faulty assumption that no one else has ever thought critically about the news and its role in our lives. To be fair, the more I read, the more I came to believe de Botton isn't interested in being a journalist himself, and this book is less an examination of the news as it is a personal examination of the news. de Botton doesn't investigate the large body of historical or contemporary news criticism. Instead, he seeks to do it all himself. Again, at times this approach is more successful than at others.

Alain de Botton is not a journalist, and his lack of knowledge about journalism shows in this book, for good and for bad. Having an outsider's perspective brings a certain freshness to the topic, but it also causes a few major missteps. Too often de Botton speaks about news outlets as a single, monolith beast. As anyone who follows news and its increasingly few corporate owners, this trend is alarmingly true, but de Botton doesn't separate the majority from the minority. In this age of the Internet, there are important journalist voices working outside of this mainstream. More disturbingly, de Botton never addresses his decidedly British perspective. At times, it was clear he was talking about his experience with British news, but at times it wasn't. There are significant differences between news organizations in the UK and the U.S., and de Botton misses the opportunity to both clarify his points and articulate these differences.

de Botton organizes this manifesto thematically, with sections on politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster, and consumption. Some of these sections were more interesting, and more original, than others. I particularly enjoyed the sections on world news and celebrity. In these sections, de Botton did a better job articulating the big picture and making an argument for and why things should be different.

Favorite passage: "Foreign news wants to tell us with whom and where we should fight, trade or sympathize. But these three areas of interest aren't priorities for the majority of us."

The verdict: The News: A User's Manual was at times an incredibly frustrating reading experience. I found the second half more successful than the first because de Botton began to more clearly express his point: to ask what news should be. It's an interesting exploration, but I don't think his approach successfully captured the complicated nature of what news currently is.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: February 11, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The News: A User's Manual  from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Alain de Botton's website, follow him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

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