Ian Jack:

On the question of journalistic practice, De Botton is at his most interesting on the job of the foreign correspondent – “interesting” in that the same paragraph can combine a nicely expressed insight into a problem with a monstrous stupidity as its solution. As he rightly says, reporting gives us an unbalanced view of abroad, especially of countries beyond Europe and North America, because it concentrates on political crises and natural disasters, and unless we have some sense of “what passes for normality in a given location, we may find it very hard to calibrate or care about the abnormal”. So how does the reporter in, say, Zambia interest his Manchester reader in the Zambian everyday? De Botton thinks it permissible for “creative writers” to adapt a fact or change a date because they will understand that “falsifications may occasionally need to be committed in the service of a goal higher still than accuracy: the hope of getting important ideas and images across to their impatient and distracted audiences”.

A goal higher than accuracy? In a book about the news, even one written by an author who cannot decide what news is, there can be no more dangerous form of words.

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it…”

Sigh. Assuming this is an accurate description, this is what worried me about his views on art. Can’t trust a fellow once he’s got it in his head to be a shepherd for the greater good. Once you’ve decided that you know best what others want and need, what’s to stop you from smoothing the path a little bit by rearranging factual complications? I mean, in what imaginable circumstances would “the greater good” hinge on something as trivial as changing a date? It sounds like de Botton has already decided on the necessity of such noble falsehoods, and is now simply trying to engineer a weak excuse to do so when the time is right.