In previous books, Alain de Botton has mined the life and work of Proust to offer readers a quirky source of self-help ("How Proust Can Change Your Life") and explored the writings of various philosophers in a similarly user-friendly guide ("The Consolations of Philosophy"). In his latest book of nonfiction, aptly titled "The Art of Travel," De Botton meditates on the rewards and realities of travel, seeking to understand its mysterious pull by way of art, literature and his own decidedly mixed experiences. He relates even the most disappointing experiences with delightful wit, graceful prose and surprising insight.
He starts with a basic question: For what reason do we desire travel? "If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness," he writes, "then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest--in all its ardour and paradoxes--than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival."
De Botton ruminates on the perplexing gap between the anticipation of travel and what it delivers. Like John Berger's "Ways of Seeing," De Botton encourages us to consider how memory and expectation color our perceptions.
De Botton begins the book by recounting a trip to Barbados. Despite his idyllic surroundings, which include island birds, coconut trees and a stunning beach, De Botton finds himself fretting over intrusive thoughts and bemoaning his failure to leave behind a dreary life in London. He realizes that his awareness of the beautiful landscape is marred by "a sore throat I had developed during the flight, worry over not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom." Throughout the book, De Botton points out the discrepancy between the selves we imagine we'll become on vacation and the selves we never stop inhabiting. Although before a trip we may envision ourselves suntanned, well-rested, well-read and sipping tropical drinks on the beach, De Botton remarks upon the tendency of mind and body to conspire in myriad ways to prevent that sublime image from ever surfacing.
While in Barbados, for example, he finds that "[t]he body found it hard to sleep and complained of heat, flies and difficulties digesting hotel meals. The mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm."
Of course, De Botton doesn't claim to hold all the answers; as in previous books, he turns to old masters of art and literature for wisdom and guidance: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Hopper and Van Gogh, among others. He quotes Flaubert on his notorious (and hilarious) contempt for France, and his intense, unremitting desire to escape his homeland, thus illuminating travel as a means of erasing history, family and identity. We might also view travel as a way of escaping loneliness and boredom, but inevitably, as De Botton points out, when we are on holiday, we often still feel lonely and bored and long to return home.
But De Botton isn't always let down by his travels. The author writes of how the simple act of transporting oneself to a strange place can take us out of ourselves, at least for a short time, thanks in part to our natural curiosity. In fact, De Botton reveals that when he feels melancholy at home, he occasionally boards a train or bus and goes to Heathrow airport, "where, from an observation gallery in Terminal 2 or from the top floor of the Renaissance Hotel along the north runway, I have drawn comfort from the sight of the ceaseless landings and takeoffs of aircraft."
He also writes beautifully of the soothing effects of train travel and its ability to stimulate the imagination and help us work through problems ("Journeys are the midwives of thought," he writes); and of the wonders of airplanes: "Few seconds in life are more releasing than those in which a plane ascends to the sky." During takeoff, he explains, "[t]he 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."
Ultimately, though, De Botton seems to yearn for the road already traveled, the one close to home. In the book's final section, he writes of renewing his attentiveness and curiosity to the neighborhood he knows so well and of discovering many things he had thus far failed to notice. "If only we could apply a travelling mind-set to our own locales," he writes, "we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of [Alexander von] Humboldt's South America."
And certainly easier on the wallet.