Alain de Botton gets philosophical about tabloids with website, book

Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton’s new book, “The News: A User’s Manual,” is a thought-provoking look at the point of the news.
Credit: Getty Images

Philosophy’s closest thing to a popstar, Alain de Botton, has mainstreamed his discipline through millions of book sales, TV shows and sold-out events. Even One Direction’s Harry Styles is a fan (and friend).

Having examined sex and spirituality, de Botton’s latest focus is news, launching The Philosophers’ Mail, an intellectual version of The Daily Mail that mocks the world’s most popular news site by adding depth to its guilty pleasure splashes. Headlines such as “Interview with David Beckham’s soul” and “Kiev is in flames and I don’t care” challenge the reader to consider their media diet.

We spoke to de Botton in London after the release of his new book, “The News: A User’s Manual.”

What concerns you about news and how we are consuming it?

The hope for news is that it will help us to live better lives and help our countries be better places by being more informed. Information should bring improvements, but that’s not happening for a range of reasons.

What is the negative impact?

Sometimes it’s a negative impact, sometimes a missed opportunity. The classic test is: Do you remember what was in the news last week? Most people can’t. Our memory for information is very bad, which is a sign we’re not being properly guided; we’re being flooded with news and that’s a problem. We have a hard time focusing on things that might matter, but it doesn’t mean everything has to be earnestly serious. I’m a great believer in material from popular news, but I’m not sure it’s being handled properly.

How difficult is it to make philosophy accessible?

I’m really interested in bite-size. [Friedrich] Nietzsche and [Ludwig] Wittgenstein wrote in morsels; there’s nothing wrong with trying to express an idea in 200 words. With the Philosophers’ Mail we’re trying to capture the news you would read in the Daily Mail but use it as a springboard to something more profound.

You have stories about pedophiles, celebrities, etc. Is the aim to feature the most-clicked material?

Absolutely, we’re really interested in being popular. What we want to do is to surprise people once they’ve clicked, and then stretch their ideas. But we don’t see anything wrong with being responsive to clicks.

How is the Daily Mail reacting to your spoof site?

We’re really hoping they’ll sue us because it would be a nice story, but they’re too sensible. We have their ex-features editor and he says they don’t care. The book has upset some people – which I didn’t intend. They think, “Who is this guy? He doesn’t understand.” Newspapers like to present themselves as infallible, but I think they should be open to criticism from outsiders.


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