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What can you expect of a book about the most pervasive presence in modern life—daily news—written by an author with a novelistic temperament? Nothing that you didn’t already know, or couldn’t figure out on your own, but told to you far more accessibly than many media theorists can hope to.

Alain de Botton’s latest contribution to pop culture, The News: A User’s Manual, is chiefly an exercise in rhetoric—of turning platitudes into easily digestible nuggets of elegant prose—though its ostensible aim is to make us alert to the different ways in which we relate to news. The overwhelming tone is one of disapproval.

Early on, de Botton gloatingly refers to Gustave Flaubert’s unconcealed disdain for news, which, in the 19th century, was a relatively recent phenomenon and perhaps worthy of the scorn of a great writer encountering for the first time the public’s craving for instant gratification. To transpose this example, more than two centuries later, to a context that could not have been more different smacks of either intellectual hubris or sheer naïveté. De Botton, it seems, has a fair share of both.

By surveying the ways in which we receive political, international, economic, cultural and disaster news, de Botton concludes what most of us already know pretty well (thanks to news bulletins, which are, according to him, a source of the evils of modern life)—that addiction to constant updates, in print, on gadgets and other electronic media, has made us shallower, angrier, envious of other people, anxious for our health, and generally, less happy human beings. Gaffe journalism, which seizes upon a slip made by a celebrity and blows it out of proportion, has distorted our perspectives. Solipsism has made us blind to the nuances of foreign news. And we do not know how to harness our anger, which, as de Botton says, should be “constructive" and last for the right amount of time.

De Botton’s gift lies in driving home these familiar points by using real news items and deconstructing them. The format of juxtaposing texts and images makes for easy reading, though the circular, and tediously repetitive, argument could encourage the reader to take short reprieves on social media. While attention deficiency may be primarily responsible for such flippant behaviour, the imprecision and fogginess of de Botton’s logic cannot exactly be ruled out as an equally plausible reason for it.

It is never quite clear, for instance, how de Botton defines news. When he deplores the shrinking effect potted news has on human curiosity, he ignores the scope of reading online, where every second word can be hyperlinked and connected to an endless library of articles, reports and related documents. If the idea is to expand one’s intellectual horizon while reading the news, there has probably never been a better medium than the Internet to do so.

De Botton also misjudges the public’s appetite for the macabre. The popular urge, he says, is to gravitate towards morbid news. People are less likely to be interested in a headline that says, “Man abandons rash plan to kill his wife", than one that screams murder. But isn’t the former far more intriguing, and therefore more likely to get noticed, than the latter?

De Botton is more convincing when he writes of the need to transform business news—to liberate it from the fetters of statistics and bring a humane dimension into it. In contrast, his lack of scruples about tweaking hard facts to enhance the literary quality of a report is worrying, and does a disservice to the reputation of other creative writers who also excel as journalists.

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