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.
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 15 October 2002
For many years I travelled around the world on business. It was exciting and somewhat startling to read my experiences again and again in the well chosen words of de Botton. I was particularly impressed by and enjoyed his use of the great writers to illustrate and to make his points. Another touch were the plentiful and apt illustrations that complete this book, a book that opens the eye of both the traveller and those who would like to travel. And it is just the right size to carry with one, at least the American edition by Pantheon Books is!
I shall give a copy to my daughter who also travels, confident that it will give her as much pleasure as it has given to me.
on 17 May 2010
I've been a big fan of Alain De Botton ever since I read "Status Anxiety", which happens to be one of my favourite books ever. I've since been working my way through his other work and gave this a go after stumbling across it in a charity shop.
De Botton's initial intentions are clear - to unravel the mysteries that surround the human need and wish to travel and see the world, and for the mostpart he is succesful. However, unlike other De Botton books that I have read, there were times when it became somewhat of a chore to read.
The layout of each chapter tends to be quite samey - and you sometimes get the feeling that you've only scratched the surface of what is clearly a vast subject.
Saying that, it is worth sticking with, due to the philosphical gems and ideas that one tends to encounter when reading books of this nature. The urge to travel and explore is something that we take at face value and never really examine, so it was interesting to look at travel through the eyes of the worlds great writers, poets and artists, as well as De Botton himself.
Overall - very glad that I read it and managed to extract some interesting viewpoints and ideas from it, but on the other hand, I'm also glad I've finished it so that I can move on to my next read, which will hopefully be slightly more engrossing.
on 21 June 2002
I loved the book. It's very different from anything else I've ever read - but that was the case with Consolations and the Proust book too. I read somewhere that the author has never written a boring sentence in his life, and it's true.
I've spent years feeling that I was the only person in the world who doesn't like "travelling" and that I was a failure for not enjoying every holiday I've been on. It's good to know that I'm not alone!
The book has inspired me to take my sketchbook on holiday this summer, put down my camera and open my eyes a bit more. And for that reason, I'd recommend reading it before you go away!
on 4 July 2002
I liked this book immensely because it was the perfect travelling companion on a recent trip to Italy I undertook. The first thing that came to mind was the description the author has written about the elation of just getting on a plane to Baudelaire's "Anywhere" and not being stuck in the same place all the time, I too was going from Terminal Two at Heathrow, I wonder if the author had been watching at that moment (I doubt it), but I had got that phrase into my mind "Anywhere but here will do!".
In the same way, when I got to where I was supposed to be staying, the author mentioned about tasting the exotic and it lingering in our minds as a reminder like some foreign perfume. How apt that the author should conjure up such phrases to precisely describe the experience of being in a foreign land.
This is such a perceptive book, that if you are going travelling I would recommend it as a thoughtful and intuitive read, if indeed you want to know "Why" in particular you are going to the places you are going to. Well done Alain de Botton, you have again simplified philosophy and understanding travel for the masses in phrases they can understand and produced a very enjoyable book to boot. I wish all travel writing could be so lucid as this. Thanks
on 20 May 2002
Alain de Botton invites readers to view travel in a different way. He pursues this end by breaking down a journey into five philosophical sub-journeys. He calls them, Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return.
In doing so, Alain de Botton travels to places where centuries ago, the likes of Flaubert, van Gogh and Ruskin have set a permanent mark. He attempts to relate how the thinking of these men were affected by their travels and how they have redefined the notion of travel itself. In his journey, he recreates - sometimes literally - the environment that these men were once in, to help him obtain their perceptions toward his five sub-journeys.
From the very first chapter, Alain de Botton's writing managed to toss my mind between travel in the physical and philosophical sense. Alain de Botton has certainly managed to change the way I view my past, present and future travels. Now, travel is to me, something more intimate than going places.
Those who are not accustomed to philosophical writing might however find this book languid in shaping a plot. She/He might even be disappointed in the end, to find an absence of a plot. It is afterall, a 'guide' to travel. Nevertheless, the book's simple philosophical subjects, and Alain de Botton's sense of irony will keep the reader engaged.
This book certainly milks out every drop of value in travel.
on 13 December 2003
From the beginning I found this book opening my mind and giving me real insights about why we travel. In each chapter the author chooses a guide to help him through a philosophical consideration of a different element of travel. The poet Wordsworth is called upon to explain why going to the countryside can heal the soul, whilst Van Gogh's paintings throw light on why we are sometimes encouraged to travel by the paintings or art we have enjoyed. The author himself is full of reflections on his own journeys - from anticipation,through the exotic bazaars of the Orient, to the 'poetry' of stations and airports, to the anticlimax of return. Lively, profound and wise this book will help everyone appreciate their travels so much more.
on 30 March 2008
I opened this book in pleasurable anticipation of a good read but almost from the first line became irritated by De Botton's use of similes and adjectives, many of which border on the absurd. The decline of winter is `like that of a person into old age'. Cloudless skies are likened to `signs of recovery in a patient upon whom death has passed sentence'. A steely grey sky has - of course - to be `ominous'. But not just ominous: it has to be `like one in a painting by Mantegna or Veronese, the perfect backdrop to the crucifixion of Christ or to a day beneath the bedclothes.' and so it goes on. At times I was reminded of the laboured similes in a Rowan Atkinson comedy. Page 17 is a prime example of De Botton's laboured, Victorian style and deserves a lengthy quotation:
`Awakening early on that first morning, I slipped on a dressing gown provided by the hotel and went out onto the veranda. In the dawn light the sky was a pale grey-blue and, after the rustlings of the night before, all the creatures and even the wind seemed in a deep sleep. It was as quiet as a library. Beyond the hotel room stretched a wide beach which was covered at first with coconut trees and then slipped unhindered towards the sea. I climbed over the veranda's low railing and walked across the sand. Nature was at her most benevolent. It was as if, in creating this small horseshoe bay, she had chosen to atone for her ill-temper in other regions and decided for once to display only her munificence. The trees provided shade and milk, the floor of the sea was lined with shells, the sand was powdery and the colour of sun ripened wheat, and the air - even in the shade - had an enveloping, profound warmth to it so unlike the fragility of northern European heat, always prone to cede, even in midsummer, to a more assertive, proprietary chill.
`I found a deck chair at the edge of the sea. I could hear small lapping sands beside me, as if a kindly monster taking discreet sips of water from a large goblet. A few birds were waking up and beginning to career through the air in matinal excitement. Behind me, the raffia roofs of the hotel bungalows were visible through gaps in the trees. Before me was the view that I recognized from the brochure: the beach stretched away in a gentle curve towards the tip of the bay, behind it were jungle-covered hills, and the first row of coconut trees inclined irregularly towards the turquoise sea, as though some of them were craning their necks to catch a better angle of the sun.
`Yet this description only imperfectly reflects what occurred within me that morning, for my attention was in truth far more fractured and confused than the foregoing paragraphs suggest. I may have noticed a few birds careering through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among these a sore throat that I had developed during the flight, a worry at not having informed a colleague that I would be away, pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom. A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.'
De Botton never loses an opportunity to demonstrate how much he or his quasi-anonymous companion `M' has read. While a single cloud hangs `shyly' above the bay, the mysterious `M' (is she head of MI6?) puts on her headphones and begins annotating Emile Durkheim's On Suicide. She would.
The author's idea of travel seems to consist in boarding planes, catching trains, filling up at gas stations and hiring cars. He seems to have a horror of engaging with the real world of people and chatter and tears and sweat, as opposed to the worlds of art and literature and posy criticism. His is the infuriating voice of the tour guide that gets between you and a work of art, the voice that tells you what to think, the voice that prevents you making up your own mind about the works of Hopper or Van Gogh or Wordsworth or Ruskin.
The book is little more than a hotch-potch of regurgitated university lecture notes interspersed by some very amateurish attempts at descriptive writing. `A black-eared wheatear is looking pensive on a conifer branch ... humans and sheep stare at one another in wonder. After a moment the sheep sits down and takes a lazy mouthful of grass, chewing from the side of her mouth as though it was gum ... Another sheep approaches and lies next to her companion, wool-to-wool, and for a second they exchange what appears to be a knowing, mildly amused glance.'
Here's some more, and I promise that this will be the last example of the purple slush you will have to wade through when (or if) you read this book:
`The rain, which continued to fall confidently despite the promises of the landlord, gave us a sense of the mass of the oaks. From under their damp canopy, rain could be heard falling on 40,000 leaves, creating a harmonious pitter-patter, varying in pitch according to where the water dripped on to a large or a small leaf, a high or a low one, one loaded with accumulated water or not...'
De Botton does not teach us how to travel so much as how not to travel. He stops the hire car to look at an olive orchard but he can't be bothered to get out of the car and walk through it. He reads a brochure in a Madrid hotel, but is too timid to go out and rub shoulders with the locals in one of that city's many wonderful restaurants, preferring to dine on a bag of crisps in his bedroom, flicking over the pages of travel brochures.
In his section on Ruskin, De Botton demonstrates a fundamental misconception about art, which he seems to think can be reduced to words on paper. As a graduate of the University of Cambridge he seems to have a pretty impoverished knowledge of aesthetics. Has he never read Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation? Has he never read Isaiah Berlin's The Roots of Romanticism? Has he never attended to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations or appreciated that abstracts (like `beauty') cannot be objectivised, let alone searched for?
De Botton is not a traveller; he is a package tourist, and not a very adventurous or imaginative one. He's the guy who asks the tour guide the question to which he already knows the answer. Can you imagine Bruce Chatwin describing clouds as seen from an aircraft window? That's what De Botton does. Can you imagine T.E. Lawrence comparing a view of the desert with what he saw in a travel guide? Can you imagine Hilaire Belloc sitting in his hotel room eating a bag of crisps instead of mixing with the locals? Or Turner staying inside because there was a nasty storm outside and he didn't want to get wet?
There were moments when I felt so impatient with the banalities of The Art of Travel that I felt like flinging the book across the room. The impression I came away with was that De Botton sees art not as an end in itself but as a means to an end. Through art, he can become an `expert', and as an expert he will be able to publish books, figure in television documentaries, become a celebrity and make lots of money. Art for art's sake? Travel to travel sake? Forget it: anything and everything De Botton sees he has to analyse to death.
But it is not only the banality, the purple patches and neo-Victorian writing that mar The Art of Travel: it lacks direction and unity. To the last page, I could never make up my mind whether it was about art or travel. Lifting pictures of art works from the Internet and printing them in black and white - or in this case grey and grey - simply didn't work for me. I looked at them, but only because I felt I had to. I felt they were an insult to the great artists who painted the originals.
De Botton has achieved what I would previously have thought impossible: he has managed to make art and nature boring. Even from a purely academic point of view, the book is pretty well useless as it has no bibliography. That's unforgivable.
on 3 June 2015
A very good book on why we travel for 'fun', exploring the subject from both personal and historical view points. Anyone who travels, and by that I mean goes on holiday, should read this. Loses a bit of focus at the end, but the first two thirds of the book is well written and compulsive reading. However, bath time book it ain't. I know I tried.
 Rated according to Arboreal Cephalopod's standard bath time book scale.