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Review: The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

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Two days ago, I quit my internship. I had spent the day upstairs with a book, hiding to avoid any actual work. Eventually, I realised I would get more reading done if I wasn’t doing all the hiding too. I was reading The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton. In what follows, I review the book that made me quit my job. 

The book is a series of essays which link common experiences of travel with philosophical themes, like the nature of anticipation, the purpose of art, and the search for happiness. The topics are linked by reference to Alain’s own travels, and his arguments are supported by concepts from a whole host of thinkers: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Humboldt, etc. The sheer variety of interesting ideas in this book mean that I would recommend reading it even if you aren’t at all interested in travel. 

The best travel writing uses history to reveal layers of meaning behind the author’s own personal experience of a place. Whilst The Art of Travel does weave together history, theory, and personal anecdotes, I felt it could have been done more effectively. The issue is that most of Alain’s anecdotes have little to no action in them; in the first chapter, for instance, his ‘travels’ involve walking into a restaurant, and eating a chocolate bar. Nothing else happens. The anecdotes are really more like a stream-of-consciousness, with the action going on in Alain’s mind: specifically, how the restaurant makes him sad, but also how it feels like a fitting, proper place to be sad. The issue is that the history and theory sections are also mainly made up of Alain’s thoughts, so there isn’t really a contrast being brought out. Instead, we simply have Alain’s thoughts – here, on somewhere he went – now, on something he read.

But his thoughts are brilliant. In fact, they often feel liberating. If you ever feel guilty that you just aren’t interested in some places, read chapter four. The argument is this: We are interested in things which help us answer certain fundamental questions, like ‘who am I?’ or ‘what matters in life?’. But these questions link up with others – you might have questions about churches, because these will help you answer the question “what is religion?” which might in turn help you answer the fundamental question: ‘how should I live?’ So if you find that you aren’t curious about everything you see on your travels, you aren’t defective or uncultured or ungrateful. It’s just that not everything is relevant to the questions you need to answer at the moment. In another chapter, Alain argues that we shouldn’t worry about the fleeting nature of what we experience travelling. It only takes a few seconds for an experience to imprint on us forever, as scenes of natural beauty did on Wordsworth. The poet called these powerful moments ‘spots of time’, and memories of them influenced Wordsworth throughout his life. So if you don’t have time for months of hiking, don’t worry: you only really need a few seconds.

Though each chapter has a fairly clear main argument, these are always supplemented by other points, and the result is that the book covers a huge variety of topics. For instance, in the chapter about curiosity, Alain makes a totally distinct observation: that the first explorers of new territories had free reign to find whatever they wanted interesting – but that we approach new places with a whole host of ideas about how we should react to what we see. Points like these are scattered throughout the book, and Alain gives them a fairly cursory treatment. As a result, you will find yourself constantly adding to and developing what you read. When I read that ‘much unhappiness is caused by only having one perspective to play with’, I found myself wondering about how many perspectives I have to choose from – and what exactly these perspectives are. I’m still wondering.

Reading The Art of Travel feels like going on a journey. Each essay is given a ‘place,’ and the thinkers are referred to as our ‘guides’. But what has stuck with me about this journey – and what ties the book together – is our travel companion, Alain himself. The book has a deeply personal style and you will finish it feeling like you know Alain well. He can be dazzlingly perceptive, and the book is worth reading for his occasional, crisp sentences of wisdom alone. Finding himself drifting into routine anxieties on a tropical shore, Alain realises what’s going wrong: ‘I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.’ Delightful. He can also, at times, be a bit melodramatic. At one point he describes having to resist ‘an impulse to kiss’ a beautiful section of brick wall. At another, he says that some pretty trees constitute ‘a reason for living.’

The author is always snacking; he is so devoted to the life of the mind, it seems, that he cannot find time for a single square meal through the book’s 261 pages. But he is intellectually honest. He spends much of his time facing up to the aspects of travel which are disappointing, and he covers them with a deep sense of humanity. I noticed that Alain often describes busy places in these terms: as places where thousands of people, each on their own journey, momentarily converge, only to go their own way once more. ‘I thought of the multiplicity of lives going on at the same time at different levels of a city.’ The fact that these descriptions occur again and again – that everywhere he goes, Alain seems to see people ‘whose lives run along lines that will never meet’ – makes me think this is genuine. It says a great deal about Alain’s deep sense of empathy that he never simply sees a crowd, but rather, is always aware that the people around him have their own inner lives too.

Reading The Art of Travel is a bit like going on holiday with an acutely perceptive philosopher, who is occasionally sentimental, always deeply humane, and never in the mood for dinner. I’d suggest going along for the ride.

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