The Art of Travel: Reviews

Ted Allen in Esquire

He is nothing if not observant, this Alain de Botton. Nothing is getting past him, with his little notebooks and stubs of pencil, lurking about European cities, sniffing, giving your wife and your car and your dog and anything else within range an unapologetic once-over, or maybe twice — and then dashing off tidy, piquant essays. It was he who argued well-sellingly How Proust Can Change Your Life (in addition to making it seem really long), and now, in The Art of Travel, it is he who gives voice and meaning to the thousands of epiphanies great and small brought about by voyaging, by anticipating, by leaving, by movement, by arrival, mixing his own modest notes with observations by artists ranging from Hopper to Flaubert (the latter on France and the French: “I am bored, I am bored, I am bored.”). And just when you think he’s gone too far, just when his fetish for revelation in the prosaic seems at its most trite and onanistic — which, at times, it does, like the tiny games of a man locked in a cell, for whom Velcro fasteners and specks of dust become fascinating of necessity — you realize that, well, he is quite correct. Yes, the particular font and color in the signage at Schipol airport represents exotica to the outsider, can offer insight into the culture and history of The Netherlands, and, possibly, the promise of a place more congenial than home. Yes, the red doorway on a simple house in Amsterdam can be alluring; indeed, de Botton felt an intense and immediate desire to live there the rest of his days, and for this one cannot blame. Why, he asks, be seduced by such a small, physical fact, by the mysteries real and exaggerated we project upon them? Well, who, exactly are our most beloved friends if they’re not the sum of their thousands of tiny behaviors and aspects? “To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns,” Botton notes, “is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be.”

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