on July 30, 2002
In the past, when I still regularly attended graduation parties, such parties were always teeming with graduates-to-be harbouring fanciful travel plans. Everybody seemed intent on getting away a.s.a.p., as long as possible, and to a very far away and preferably out of the way place. They wanted to become travellers, a breed not to be confused with commonplace tourists. I've never been able to detect any intrinsic motivations driving this graduate travelling habit, e.g. a deep-seated and longstanding interest in a particular country or culture. It was simply a matter of opportunity, this jumping at the a chance to be thoroughly irresponsible for a while, before entering on the responsibilities of a steady job. And of course, everybody was going and it would be very un-cool to stay at home. After these people returned from their well-organised adventures, it invariably struck me how little they had changed, and how little they had to tell about the places they had been; apart maybe from random scraps on local customs that I could as easily and more completely have found in any travel guide book. Nevertheless most of these people, even years later, would be prone to lapse into dreamy states of blissful reminiscence at the slightest cue, expressing a deep longing to go back there, preferably to stay. It got me wondering why it is that the same things we find boring or commonplace at home are suddenly deeply interesting simply because they occur 5,000 miles away.
I remember one such party where I met an acquaintance who just got her degree in philosophy. I asked her if she was planning on her more or less mandatory world trip as well. But she just gave me a weary smile, tapped the side of her head and said: `Travelling is something you do in here'.
In a nutshell that's the question and the essence of the answer in Alain de Botton's thoughtful book on travel. Why do we bother? What do we expect, and why are we so often disappointed? And then again, why do our memories of the trip rarely reflect the disappointments? And what is the clue to not being disappointed? How do you go about really experiencing the place where you are and making it part of yourself? On all such questions De Botton has interesting and often entertaining observations to make. He shows us that the exotic is not defined by long-haul flights and palm trees, but can be found literally on your doorstep if you just know how to look. He explains why a travelling Englishman can be depressed on far away and exotic Barbados and euphoric in nearby, but in many ways equally exotic Amsterdam, or even around the corner in Hammersmith where he lives. As a Dutchman I was fascinated by his detailed analysis of a sign in the arrivals hall of Amsterdam Airport, explaining its exotic nature from a British viewpoint, and the reasons you would never ever find a sign like that in the UK, just across the Channel. De Botton is a master at finding such surprising angles to elucidate his subjects. Moreover he has considerable erudition to add, resulting in an engrossing mixture of philosophical insight, personal experience, and references to artists, writers, explorers and scientists of the past. Mostly these historical figures, Flaubert in Egypt, say, or Humboldt in South America or Van Gogh in the Provence, are exemplary `artists of travel', people who knew how to make the most of their expeditions. By taking their mindset, involving energy, patience and an eye for detail, as a template, De Botton generates some useful suggestions for the modern day traveller who no longer wants to bore himself by `scoring' obligatory highlights in the guidebook star-rating order, or who refuses to be a slave to his camera any longer. He may even give you some clues as to how to deal with that greatest travelling problem of them all, the fact that wherever you go, you always have to take yourself along.
In all, an elegant, intelligent, thought-provoking, amusing and useful little book, that nobody who takes travelling seriously should miss. Don't take it with you though - it won't last you much longer than an afternoon on the beach...
on September 2, 2002
In his chapter called "On Eye-opening Art", Alain de Botton describes his lukewarm initial reaction to the much-extolled Provence, France. Then, in a sleepless first night there, he happened to read chapters in a book about Vincent Van Gogh that focussed on Van Gogh's Arles period. Van Gogh's art opened de Botton's eyes to the beauty of the landscape, because he started to see it as that great artist had. I mention this detail in particular because what Van Gough did for de Botton, de Botton does for the reader. "The Art of Travel" introduces the reader to an attitude toward and practice of travel that allows him or her to enjoy it more fully. de Botton's suggestions and observations are surprising, of the "Huh, I never thought about that" variety.
de Botton is well read, and he draws upon his knowledge of artists, philosophers, naturalists and poets, combined with first-person narrative, to illuminate his points. If you take the author's suggestions to heart, wherever you go -- across the globe or in your own neighborhood -- you will immerse yourself in your wanderings to a greater and more satisfying degree.
Having said that, I should add that this book is not just a means to an end. The journey itself is enjoyable. de Botton's writing is as engaging as his philosophy is attractive.
on August 29, 2002
Alain De Botton's latest publication, ~The Art of Travel~ is a philosophical investigation, simply written, on the reasons and motivations for why we travel. The book's main thesis is that our lives are dominated by a search for that illusive and fleeting emotion or state known as happiness. Travel, he proposes, is a major activity, amongst many, where we seek-out this state of mind. Travel can possibly show us what life is about outside our routine-filled day-to-day existence. The book examines our motives for travelling, our anticipations, and expectations using the writings of various artists, poets and explorers, providing different and highly creative perspectives on the subject.
Personally, I found the most rewarding and instructive chapter to be, 'On eye-opening Art', using the views and paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Just as instructive, however, is the chapter, 'On Possessing Beauty', drawing on the works of the 19th century critic and writer, John Ruskin. The message from both these individuals are quite similar. One of the tasks of art, specifically painting, is to provide us, the viewer, with new perspectives in which to view the world. Vincent van Gogh's exceedingly original style and use of colour, for example, transformed, for some of us, the way we see a sunflower, a wheat field and a Cypress tree. When viewing these works of art, or any work of art, we are inspired to travel to these places where the artist created, and experience the subject of the works first-hand.
John Ruskin believed that one of our primary needs in life is beauty and its possession. He suggested that the only meaningful way to possess beauty was through understanding it: '...making ourselves conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) that are responsible for it,' (P.220) The way to attain this understanding, he suggests, is to draw and write (word paint) those things and places we come across in our travels that strike us as beautiful. A person sitting down in front of an expansive landscape, and sketching its many features, will discover aspects about the scene that would be invisible to the casual observer. When travelling, take the time to draw and write about those places and things one sees, and the experience will be much richer as a result.
~The Art of Travel~ is a helpful philosophical guide to the budding and seasoned traveller. Where other books on the subject instruct us on where to go and what to see, Alain De Botton tells us how to approach our journeys and some useful tools on achieving a much more meaningful and rewarding experience.
on May 25, 2006
I work for some very wealthy people who travel frequently. They always buy a package tour for umpteen thousands of dollars, stay at four-star hotels or on luxury cruise vessels, make no effort to read anything about the countries they're visiting because there's "not enough time," and -- other than some nice photographic trophies and a few stories about the funny things their guide said -- don't know much more about their destinations after the trip than before.
In his other books that I have read -- HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE and THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY -- Alain de Botton has succeeded to taking very complex material and distilling it down to a few home truths that are as enlightening as anything I have read on the subjects.
You can imagine that I was eager to see what de Botton would do with travel, about which I know something because I love it above all other things in my life. Before going on a vacation, I start a six-month reading program encompassing guidebooks, histories, biographies, and the literature of the country or countries I am visiting.
When I visited Iceland in 2001, for example, I read all the major medieval Icelandic sagas, anything I could find by Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness, histories, travel books by W. H. Auden, Lord Dufferin (19th century Governor General of Canada), and others. That would place me in the category of J. K. Huysmans's hero Des Esseintes -- with one major difference: I also took the journey and enjoyed it. I am doing the same prep now for an upcoming visit to Patagonia.
People travel for many reasons, but they sometimes forget that travel will not necessarily open their minds and hearts to anything. There is an old 1960s saying: "Wherever you go, there you are." De Botton exposes our motives and shows that, in effect, the way to enjoy travel the most is to be prepared for and open to change, to in effect change the "you" that is travelling.
Both Pascal and Dostoyevsky have noted that man is unhappy largely because he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room. If so, man will be no happier under a palm tree in Bora Bora.
There is one scene in the first chapter, "On Anticipation," that summarizes it all for me. De Botton and his travelling companion get into a spat over who gets which portion of dessert. Despite the idyllic setting in Barbados, the day is spoiled for both of them:
"There is a contrast between the vast projects we set in motion, the construction of hotels and the dredging of bays, and the basic psychological knots that undermine them, How quickly may the advantages of civilisation be wiped out by a tantrum. The intractibility of the mental knots points to the austere, wry wisdom of those ancient philosophers who walked away from prosperity and sophistication and argued, from within a barrel or a mud hut, that the key ingredients of happiness could not be material or aesthetic but most always be stubbornly psychological..."
And there we get to the rub: This is a book about how travel can make you happy -- if you're ready for it!
on November 28, 2002
De Botton seems to have given his new book, like two of his previous volumes (HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE and THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY), a self-satirizing title. But like those earlier works, THE ART OF TRAVEL exhibits a strong belief in the ability of art, observation, and thinking about art to make a difference on how one experiences one's own life and place in the world. His interest in "stay-at-home" artists, first evidenced in his study of Proust, continues. THE ART OF TRAVEL is comprised of nine chapters. The first ("On Anticipation") uses the disappointment of the decadent aesthete "hero" of J.K. Huysmans's novel A REBOURS as the basis of an exploration of why the experience of travel never seems to match our expectations (at least for those of us who are well-read). Huysmans's Parisian hero had a hankering to see London after reading a Dickens novel, made preparations for his trip, but got no further than an English tavern in Paris when he "was abruptly overcome by lassitude." In the final chapter ("On Habit") de Botton identifies an author who takes Huysmans's and Proust's approach to travel to the extreme--Xavier de Maistre. The work is JOURNEY AROUND MY BEDROOM. (The man and the book exist; I checked the Internet.) De Botton, in his humorously endearing way tries to follow de Maistre's example...but his bedroom is too small (and too crowded with books, I might add...He gives us a photograph.) Instead, he uses his immediate neighborhood as a basis for seeing what there is to see when one makes up one's mind to notice the details one would notice (without prompting) in more exotic locales. Sandwiched between these two chapters are excellent essays based on an examination of the works and world views of Charles Baudelaire & Edward Hopper ("On Traveling Places"); Gustave Flaubert ("On the Exotic"); the detail obsessed Alexander von Humboldt ("On Curiosity"); the ever-peripatetic William Wordsworth ("On the Country and the City"); Edmund Burke and the anonymous author of JOB ("On the Sublime"); the late-blooming but revolutionary artist Vincent van Gogh ("On Eye-Opening Art"); and the highly articulate artist John Ruskin ("On Possessing Beauty"). As with de Botton's earlier books, there will be those who feel he has been too superficial in his examination of his sources and too quick to see their application for our lives today. But I disagree. I find that he gives the reader plenty to think about without burdening us with too much analysis. He gives us the box and opens the lid. It's the reader's job to make the connections and explore the contents.
If nothing else, this book left me with the desire to read van Gogh's letters (which I own) and anything by Ruskin (which I don't own but will certainly start looking for on Amazon.com; I found Ruskin's observation about the twin purposes of art to be as true today as when he noted them: to make sense of pain and to fathom the sources of beauty, p. 233.)
In his continuing (and admirable) quest to bring the philosophic to bear on concrete everyday topics, de Botton's latest slim work takes on the notion of why people travel, and how this is linked to the pursuit of happiness. It's very similar to his last work, The Consolations of Philosophy, in that his aim seems to be to help the reader avoid being disappointed in their travels-as so often is the case. And is the case in his other work, the answer is to be found within ourselves if only we would take a few moments of self-reflection, as he puts it: The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to."
To illustrate this, he intertwines his own travel experiences with those of several famous European writers and artists in order to highlight his points. Although the book is divided into five distinct sections (Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, Return), these each have various subsections and sub-subsections, making the structure is more haphazard than his previous nonfiction. Some of these sections work better than others, a particularly weak one is the examination of Flaubert in Egypt and exoticism. He takes Flaubert's self-professed kinship with the "unwashed masses" of Egypt at face value, failing to acknowledge any of the inherent power dynamics in this, or indeed any Western tourist's visit to the third world. Rather he is content to point out the self-evident fact that the lure of the exotic has always been a powerful motivator for travel.
In any event, it's hardly surprising that he uses artists and writers to piggyback his themes on, for (as is evident from the title), he equates travel with art in that one of the functions of each is to provide one with a new window on the world, a new way of seeing. His suggestion is that once we recognize this, and stop trying to use travel as an escape from our dull lives, we'll be much happier. He locates one of the major sources of our disappointment in travel in our ability to image the beach or mountain but our inability to imagine ourselves in that landscape.
Even with its flaws, the book is a useful tool for rethinking our own motivations for travel and potentially useful guide to helping us enjoy it more.
on August 25, 2003
Desperate for something new and written in English to read after several months subsisting on one guidebook as I traveled through Europe, I found "The Art of Travel" at an English-language bookstore in Vienna. Alain de Botton's book turned out to be a perfect travel companion: funny, thought-provoking, and able to stay quiet when I needed him to.
"The Art of Travel" ponders why we travel, what we may gain from it, and what we may learn as we go. At times humorous, at times philosophical, de Botton holds up the act of traveling to gentle scrutiny and invites us to share each facet of the view.
This book is not for people who need to know whether to visit Florence in August (don't!) or what train is the best one to take from Paris to Prague (there isn't one that will allow an uninterrupted night's sleep, trust me). It is a wise and witty companion for thinking travelers.
If you know that travel at its best can be a personal and spiritual journey as well as a physical one, and you want the astute company of a like mind, you will enjoy this book.
on March 27, 2007
A December afternoon in London --- it's depressing just to read those words, much less be there. But at the start of "The Art of Travel," Alain de Botton is at his desk in London, looking at a travel brochure: palm trees, unspoiled beach, placid sea. He is reminded of the paintings that William Hodges made in Tahiti; he muses on the ways "a lengthy and ruinously expensive journey might be set in motion by nothing more than the sight of a photograph of a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze."
And he decides to go to Barbados.
Which is not to say the next thing that happens is the purchase of tickets and the packing of bags.
De Botton's interests are not the usual ones: how many meals on the cruise ship, if there's a casino near the hotel, might a supermodel be at the pool.
He cares about where to travel. Equally, he cares about why. And how. And what travel reveals about our quest for --- and attainment of --- happiness.
So before you smell the Coppertone, you first get an account of an 1884 novel about a French nobleman's trip to London. And even when de Botton gets to the beach, is he there? From his account, he's trapped in his head --- stimulus simply inspires thought. Not a loss, as he sees it: "Our actual happiness...rarely endures for longer than ten minutes." As that French novel suggests, "we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there."
De Botton next considers a different sort of travel: going to a gas station and an airport. Why? To look. To consider what Baudelaire had to say about travel. To lose himself in clouds. To review the career of Edward Hopper.
Well, why not? "Journeys are the midwives of thought." It's not where you go, it's what you think there. And you will get ideas, because "thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks." Thus the importance of hotel note pads.
More trips covered in these pages: Flaubert in Egypt, de Botton in Madrid, Wordsworth (and, now, de Botton) in the Lake District. You should read with a pencil for the cool factoids and the sharp observation; you should also feel free to skim.
At last de Botton travels to Provence. Ah, who does not love Provence? Well, Alain de Botton, for one. He has come to visit friends, hoping to find the beautiful landscapes he's heard so much about. But "the olive trees look stunted, more like bushes than like trees, and the wheat fields evoked the flat, dull expanses of southeastern England, where I had attended a school and been unhappy."
Provence is an artist's favorite; de Botton decides to study the visual arts. He starts with the obvious --- Van Gogh --- but quickly moves beyond the cliches to the paintings themselves. And what he discovers, by looking hard at what's around him, is that Van Gogh was a realist. Those cypress trees, they really did move in the wind. The blue sky lacks a trace of white. At night, the sky holds "a profusion of colors." So de Botton starts to draw. The results are immediate: He sees more, and his language sharpens about what he sees.
When he returns home, he considers the travel writing of Xavier de Maistre, who took a "journey" in 1798 --- around his bedroom. (A very good idea, de Maistre suggested, for the poor and fearful.) De Botton takes the hint and goes for a walk around his neighborhood. And, of course, "once I began to consider everything of potential interest, objects released latent layers of value." He learns the hardest lesson of all: "to notice what we have already seen."
All books are trips, if only from start to finish. Some cushion the ride; they're cotton candy, formula entertainment. Books we cherish tend to shake us along the way --- they're dotted with surprises, thrills, challenges, reversals. It's a rougher ride, and sweatier, but when you get to the end, you know you've been somewhere. Food tastes fresher, colors look sharper, experience feels deeper. And you somehow feel more alive.
"The Art of Travel" is a pointed, powerful reminder of how rich your life can be --- right where you are. Look around. Don't see it? Then read this book.
on March 4, 2003
De Botton's book is another that I came across at the library in which I work. I was so enamored of it that I had to own it (3 cheers for Amazon!) The book is a series of essays ("On Anticipation", "On the Exotic", "On Possessing Beauty", etc.) interspersed with black&white reproductions of paintings and photographs.
Each essay/chapter contains a place/places and a "guide/guides." For example, in #2 ("On Travelling Places"), the "guides" are French poet Charles Baudelaire and American painter Edward Hopper. Using quotes from the former and paintings from the latter, de Botton evokes the romance of airports and train stations and other places of arrival & departure--how they are the stuff of hopes, dreams, inspirations.
He also writes of the joy of the journey itself, where one is transported not only away from the physical familiarity of home, but into a state of suspension, where--for a time--the worries & complaints of everyday living don't exist. I have experienced this sensation as well as the joys of anonymity--an experience which can transform even a cheap motel room into a sanctuary from daily demands.
on April 10, 2007
I read this book while on vacation in Bora Bora a couple months ago - Bora Bora doesn't seem like the kind of place where you would need any more inspiration in order to enjoy the experience. But after reading The Art of Travel, the enjoyment I got out of the rest of my trip increased 10 fold. And the messages from this book still haunt my mind months later. I've always considered myself to be an avid traveler, but up until now I've just been going through the motions - like I've had some massive "to do" list that needed to be completed or something like that. I now look at every trip I take in a very different light, but it's not just that...I even think about my daily commute differently. This is a mind-opening book and is a great read not only for those who are seeking more depth from their far flung adventures, but also those who just seek to find more meaning in day to day life. There are very few books I read more than once, but this one will remain on my nightstand (and in my backpack when I'm on the road) for a long time to come.