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Carpe Diem meets Rough Guide,
This review is from: The Art of Travel (Hardcover)
I was reading The Art of Travel at the same time as it was declared in the newspapers that English tourists are the least wanted visitors around the world - on account of our coarse behaviour, linguistic apathy, parsimony and indifference to local culture. De Botton's work might, then, be seen as an emergency remedy to the pervasive 'Brit Abroad' attitude, a stereotype rapidly becoming truism as Ryan Air package holidays and Ibiza culture increase in popularity. Many of the major aspects of travel, such as feverish anticipation for things new, and the unnerving ease with which we become accustomed to foreign sights, are systematically re-explored by de Botton with the case histories of at least one famous thinker; a technique which works particularly well when the author tries to emulate the attitudes of those thinkers when visiting the same locations about which they had written. So, for example, we travel to Provence with Van Gogh as our guide, and see how he deliberately brought to life those aspects of the region he considered most quintessential, but which other more classical artists had ignored for stylistic reasons. We also sense Baudelaire's fascination with areas of departure - his poésie des salles d'attente, since they were symbolic of a dreamy Other, and thus much more than the functional, rather depressing places we instinctively associate with tedium.
Obviously this book has been strategically released at a time when the British public is once again scavenging for holiday literature, but one should avoid the temptation to brand it a rather shallow money-spinner, for it is more than this: as much as it is about how to get more out of an experience abroad, it is equally about how to reinvestigate domestic life through a new perspective. De Botton makes us turn back to thoughts that are rarely considered in depth despite their apparent simplicity: how much are our aesthetic dissatisfactions at home linked to a self-perpetuated monotony caused by regarding everything in the same mindset? Are photographs in a sense dangerous, since they seem to capture the essence of moments indefinitely, beguiling us into paying no more than a second's attention to things that enrapture us? Is our nationality really dictated by where we live?
If at times de Botton does seem to be playing the clownish sidekick to his chosen personalities, we should probably forgive him this: I see it less as an attempt to make the narrative comic than an unpretentious means of saying that philosophy is not all about highbrow abstraction, and genuinely does have applications in daily life (hence the author's practical experiments to sketch in the manner of Ruskin, or rediscover the aesthetic merit of his London surroundings, much like Xavier de Maistre did his bedroom). Moreover, there is much that is good about this book: the numerous paintings, photographs and sketches are necessary in evoking a sense of each place; the child-like amazement of de Botton beholding familiar things such as aircraft or mountains encourages a similar reappraisal of them in the reader; and the use of a wide variety of intellectuals - painters, writers, explorers - makes for interesting variety. This is a book, I would suggest, for those who have become accustomed to boredom despite their efforts to avoid this, or for those who have wanted to travel, but were never sure where or how to justify their going; although everyone is likely to gain at least some new perspective from it.