The Art of Travel Synopsis
Any Baedeker will tell us where we ought to travel, but only Alain de Botton will tell us how and why. With the same intelligence and insouciant charm he brought to How Proust Can Save Your Life, de Botton considers the pleasures of anticipation; the allure of the exotic, and the value of noticing everything from a seascape in Barbados to the takeoffs at Heathrow.
Even as de Botton takes the reader along on his own peregrinations, he also cites such distinguished fellow-travelers as Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Van Gogh, the biologist Alexander von Humboldt, and the 18th-century eccentric Xavier de Maistre, who catalogued the wonders of his bedroom. The Art of Travel is a wise and utterly original book. Don’t leave home without it. (Amazon)
While I do not as a rule read self help books, I had heard great things about the writings of Alain de Botton and so wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Of all non-fiction I am most partial to travel memoirs and so I decided that out of his extensive back catalogue The Art of Travel was the perfect place for me to start.
I had expected some wry observations about the silly things we humans do while travelling, and perhaps some amusing self-deprecation from the narrator about his own travel faux pas, and it certainly contains those, but de Botton goes much much deeper. He takes a step back, taking on a birds-eye view of the traveller if you will, and considers our broader motivations at a philosophical level.
Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure.
De Botton’s prose can at times be a little decadent, but in small doses, the way I consumed this title, word lovers will be enthralled.
There is psychological pleasure in this take-off too, for the swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation. The display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives; to imagine that we too might one day surge above much that now looms over us.
While there are passages that take on a slightly greater evangelical tone than I would normally like, he does contain this by giving great weight (and text) to the thinking of many historical thought leaders and pioneers of their time. De Botton actually uses these historical figures as ‘guides’ to thinking about travel, from Huysman’s protagonist Des Esseintes who concluded that it is preferable to travel in the in the mind so that we only experience the good parts of a place, the things that make it unique, to Nietzsche and the observation that travel is the practical result of our innate curiousity and that we do so to gain a sense of continuity and belonging by observing first hand the existence of past races.
I found some of these viewpoints and the quips related to them very interesting. For example, de Botton opines on the hazards of ‘pernicious guidebooks telling us what is amazing and what is not’, and this reference to there often being many historical time periods and cultures on physical display in haphazard context in the more traditional tourist hotspots,
Travel twists our curiosity according to a superficial geographical logic, as superficial as if a university course were to prescribed books according to their size rather than subject matter.
Noting the important caveat that I dipped in and out of this title over time, much as I would a short story collection, I found that in The Art of Travel de Botton balanced sarcasm and his jaded persona well with that of an enquiring mind. The critical and exploratory thinking presented perspectives that were new to me and I appreciated learning much more about the historical figures featured such as Vincent Van Gogh.
I both listened to this title in the audio narrated by Nicholas Bell and read it in ebook format. While I enjoyed Nicholas Bell’s calming narrative voice, I recommend reading The Art of Travel as the written form contains many photos of the scenes and artwork mentioned and I felt these enhanced the experience.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
Have you read The Art of Travel or any other title from Alain de Botton?
Join the discussion below.
Author Information: Alain de Botton is the author of seven non-fiction books that look at the great questions of ordinary life – love, friendship, work, travel, home – in a way that is intellectually rigorous, therapeutic, amusing and always highly readable. His goal is to bring ideas back to where they belong: at the center of our lives.
- Check out Alain de Botton’s website
– Alain de Botton talks to Writers Space about The Art of Travel