Reading Time: 2 minutes

My book review this week is on a work of fiction, for a change. The Remains of the Day, by British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Man Booker Prize in 1989. I was drawn to this book upon reading that it was one of Jeff Bezos’ favorite books. I wondered what kind of book would delight him.

The story centers on an English butler, Mr. Stevens, who served Lord Darlington on a large estate in Oxfordshire. Lord Darlington proudly aligned himself with the Nazi’s, hosting a number of gatherings attended by influential people, but ultimately died in disgrace. Stevens stubbornly refused to believe the warnings about Darlington.

The story is an account of a week long road trip to the west side of England, after Stevens has begun working for the American purchaser of the Darlington estate. During that trip, Stevens reminisces about his experiences, and particularly his relationship with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper and under-butler. He also ponders the importance of dignity, which he defines as a “butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” (p. 42)

From what I’ve read this is a book that seeps into your psyche over time. While I don’t have takeaways in the traditional sense, here are a couple of thoughts:

  • In the book, Stevens aligns himself with a man who believed in the mission of the Nazi’s. Against his own best instincts and a significant protest from Miss Kenton, he fires two employees solely because they are Jewish. He ultimately misses out on a romantic relationship with Miss Kenton. (In that world relationships between the people who work on the English estates are prohibited.) We all choose who and what to align ourselves with – in business, and in life. Choose wisely.
  • Stevens occasionally laments that some minor failure was the result of a problematic staffing plan. Is the problem that the staffing plan was bad, or is the problem that there was no accountability from the employee who was charged with the task?
  • Whether we call it dignity or not, successful leaders are able to maintain their ‘professional being,’ regardless of what is going on around them.
  • We all profit from those critical turning points that “challenge and stretch one to the limit of one’s ability and beyond, so that thereafter one has new standards by which to judge oneself.” (p. 70)
  • During parts of the time that Miss Kenton worked for Stevens, they enjoyed tea at the end of the day, and discussed work. It was a time that they both enjoyed, for awhile. Later in the book, Stevens reflects on the whole process of reflection. He ponders whether he should regret having trusted that Lord Darlington was doing something worthwhile. Should we look back at something we’ve done with regret, or merely acceptance? He notes that evening is the best time of the day – when we should relax, reflect, and enjoy.