The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

The Art of Travel by Alain de BottonIt is true confession time: I don’t really like most travel writing. It is difficult for me to read travel accounts by most other people at least until those accounts have withstood the test of time. For example, I’ve never liked Peter Mayle’s Provence books (A Year in Provence, Toujour Provence, Encore Provence and the others) and I couldn’t finish Frances Mayes’, Under the Tuscan Sun. There is something about reading the anecdotal travel experiences of others that doesn’t amuse me. I would rather have my own experience than I would live somebody else’s experience vicariously.

The "travel" writers I do enjoy are people like Lawrence Durrell. As I’ve written elsewhere Durrell himself claims that his books are ". . . about living in places, not just rushing through them." Admittedly, I enjoy ANY good writer when they write about place and about the travel experience insofar as it helps us to understand our own plight and our own travel.

My reluctance to embrace just any travel writer had caused me to shy away from Alain de Botton’s book, The Art of Travel. I must have picked it up three or four times in bookstores since it came out in 2002 and put it down again thinking it was just another "how-to travel" guide. I learned that I couldn’t have been more mistaken after finding this fascinating book in my stocking at Christmas.

I would have called de Botton’s book "Tools for Traveling" or the "Traveler’s Toolkit." As the author writes in his introductory chapter, "On Anticipation:"

"We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing.’"

I’ve rarely found a book that "teaches" the art of travel as this one does. He does so through "masters" of the art form, including artists such as Edward Hopper and Vincent Van Gogh, writers like Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert, Renaissance men such as Edmund Burke and John Ruskin, and a variety of others including Alexander von Humboldt, the German explorer and William Wordsworth, the poet.

You’ll deduce from this brief list that de Botton is both a Francophile and a philosopher. Indeed, he is both, and a very widely read "citizen of the world" as well. His father was born in Egypt but he was born in Zurich and educated in Switzerland and England. His biography reads like a composite who’s who among modern European intellectuals even though he is an extremely young man, born the year I was married! (Or does this say more about me than about him?)

The Art of Travel is a collection of essays organized by logical subject categories: Departure (Anticipation and Traveling "Places,"), Motives (for travel like Curiosity and the Exotic), Landscape (understanding beauty and interpreting landscapes or nature) and Art (seeing through art and "possessing" beauty). In each essay or pair of essays, de Botton takes us to a specific place (eight or nine in all, including Barbados, Provence, London and Amsterdam to list a few) and he takes us through the eyes of the humanists listed above. These latter are our "guides" as de Botton calls them.

I’ll give you two examples of guides to illustrate the breadth of coverage that de Botton brings to his subject. Since we began doing bicycle tours in Provence I’ve always been amused at the art historians’ speculation as to why Van Gogh’s paintings, especially his olive trees and cypress trees, looked so "tormented." This characteristic of his paintings is often attributed to his mental state (Indeed, he suffered mental illness, there is no question about that.) But if you have ever pedaled a full day through the mistral wind in Provence you know that Van Gogh was simply trying to capture the tormented olive and cypress tress whipped by the wind. Personally, I think he has done a fine job and de Botton agrees. He actually put some effort into watching cypress trees in the wind and comparing them to Van Gogh’s paintings. He follows up on his point – that we simply don’t see some things that are too obvious – by pointing out that Oscar Wilde had observed that nobody noticed the fog in London ". . . before Whistler [an American] painted it!"

De Botton’s breadth of reading is astounding, as this second example illustrates. In his last chapter "On Habit" he calls on Xavier de Maistre as our "guide." De Maistre was a Frenchman who, in 1790, published a travel book entitled "Journey around my Bedroom." You might feel "betrayed," claims de Botton in reading de Maistre, as the author wanders a lot with digressions about his dog, his girlfriend, and his servant. Still, the point is that de Maistre is proposing an important and insightful lesson, namely that "the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than the destination we travel to."

Indeed, I had a geography professor, Clyde Patton, who was something of a Renaissance figure. Upon hearing us graduate students complain about the choice for the annual spring Geography Department field trip, Clyde silenced us all by quietly noting that "there is no such thing as an uninteresting place; there are just ‘uninquisitive’ geographers." We learned a lot on that field trip.

I developed the habit years ago of creating my own personalized index when I read a book. If I own the book I just jot down page numbers in the empty pages at the back of the book about topics that interest me. The quality and quantity of my index often suggests how engaged I was by the author. My index to de Botton’s book provides insight, I think, into both the author and my own interest in the "art of travel." Just a few highlights:

Why we travel? p. 9

In Barbados a "momentus fact. . . was making itself apparent" after imagining and anticipating the perfect journey, found that he had "inadvertently brought myself to the island." p. 26

Anticipation – "the finest aspect of travel;" as it allows "imaginary" travel without any of the discomfort.

On nationality, citizenship and patriotism, p. 96. (This was relative to Flaubert who felt we should be allowed citizenship not where we were born but where we are drawn: the "idea of a native country . . . has always seemed to me narrow-minded" wrote Flaubert.)

Re: Garage door openers: Wordsworth – "How men lived even next-door neighbors, as we say, yet still strangers, and knowing not each other’s names." p. 136

Van Gogh and the Mistral – p. 186

On possessing beauty with photos, p. 214 or by art, or by writing (more on photography as a substitute for "active" seeing, p. 219

Ruskin on "learning how to look." p. 218

Any book that makes me want to read more by the same author or who drives me to the library to look up more about what he or she has written is my friend for the long term.

I’m ready to read Ruskin now and I’m ready to pick up de Botton’s own "How Proust Can Change Your Life." Will I read Proust as well? If time allows.

In the meantime why do we travel? As de Botton pointed out at the beginning (page 9) it has to do with what the Greeks called "human flourishing." After all, when Socrates was asked "where he came from". . . he answered "not ‘From Athens’ but ‘From the World.’

Where do YOU come from?