It may have become apparent by now, that one of my favourite contemporary philosophers is Alain De Botton. It’s not just his determination to strip philosophy of its more inaccessible pretensions, it’s also his quirky and encouraging celebration of failure that make him an appealing writer. De Botton continually highlights the consoling and therapeutic sides of art and culture as antidotes to the pressures of – yes, that tiresomely overused phrase – the modern world. His call to properly re-examine the familiar idea of success as measured through objective symbols like wealth and status is something that is not only endearing, but also hugely necessary today. So in this spirit, I thought it worth mentioning this little gem of a book that I came across by chance many years ago, and that I unearthed the other day whilst rearranging my bookshelf (it’s what all the cool people do in their free time).
The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile
The book is not nasty. It, like De Botton, does not encourage us to look down or condemn those who have failed in their endeavours, whether they are work related, personal, or cultural endeavours. Rather, it encourages us to recognise the absurdity that can disturb almost any attempt to do something personally meaningful. The ever-present reminder that we just might not get to where we wanted to be is there in nearly every story. Having said this, this odd medley of failure also contains the message that often through failing we get to somewhere else, somewhere that could be equally interesting as our initial destination. This book shows us something of how much of the modern media could treat failure if it is to be really useful to anyone: As something familiar to everyone in one form or another, and not an aberration that separates smart people from geese and fools to be laughed at and ridiculed even beyond the point of their humanity.
There is something humbling about reading this book, but also strangely encouraging. It doesn’t abstract failure into something that only happens to other people, but reminds us almost cheerfully, with a self-deprecating and amusing tone, that failure is a natural part of living that shouldn’t be denied or covered up but rather, embraced. There is a weird kind of happiness that can come with not being the best, and this funny little book, with its magnificently camp cartoon illustrations, serves as a useful reminder on any bookshelf, that at any moment, it might all fall down.