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Travel will never be the same again
on 14 June 2002
Travel is one of those things that you're supposed to be born knowing how to do. After all, it looks fairly easy, doesn't it. It's just a case of buying a ticket, boarding a plane etc.
But of course, it's typical of our materialistic culture that we only ever look at the practical obstacles or means of doing things - and ignore the psychological ones. So we never ask how we can be happy on our travels, we just head off on them - and then wonder what might have gone wrong once we're on the Acropolis in baking heat, thinking, Why aren't I at home?!
All of which makes Alain de Botton's book particularly refreshing, as ever (for readers new to this man's work, also check out Essays in love, How Proust can change your life and The Consolations of Philosophy). De Botton looks at travel from a philosophical angle - not in the strict philosophical way that you might find in a university (the last review shows why academics should get out a little more!). Rather, he just starts to think deeply and well about some of the big issues of travel - like: what's the difference between anticipating a place and actually getting there, why do we find some countries exotic, how can we be curious about the places we see, why is it nice to go into the countryside.
What I love about de Botton's writing is that he's never shy to ask the big naive questions that all the highbrows think they know the answer to already (without actually ever discussing them), while the lowbrows are too frightened to ask.
This book is also beautifully illustrated and put together. This might seem like a superficial point, but actually, in all of de Botton's work, there's a real emphasis on visual. Why not mix words and images, the author seems to be saying; magazines do it all the time, why not serious books then?
I should say that this book is a bit different from the last couple de Botton has written. It's a lot more personal, and a lot more descriptive - which I think is a step forward. There's a lot of passages which aren't trying to tell you anything directly, they're just evoking the beauty or interest of places. So for example, de Botton writes some beautiful passages about the feeling of airports and diners, about the countryside, about the sky in Provence, about the streets in Hammersmith, West London, about Madrid. This means that what you end up with in this book is a combination of beautiful descriptions and thoughtprovoking ideas. Which is rare in travel books. Travel books often seem to be written by rather idea-free kind of people: they tell you about a place, but they don't stop to reflect on it. And that's what's good about The Art of Travel. My local bookshop had a poster accompanying the book that read: This summer, don't just work on your tan. Work on your mind. OK, it's a bit glib, but the book really is worth it.