The Art of Travel: Reviews
The Idler, 4 June 2002
Where should one chance to first encounter Alain de Botton’s latest philosophical excursion, The Art of Travel, but in an airport bookshop?
At five o’clock in the morning at bustling Stansted Airport, near London, The Art of Travel’s British list price of 9 pounds 99 pence was higher than airfare from England to Denmark on Ryanair, one of a number of discount European carriers with active names like Go, Buzz, and Easyjet.
De Botton’s paperback book, piled high on tables by the cash register, drew attention because of an air travel themed cover, the wingtip of a Jumbo Jet, seen from a window seat at 35,000 feet.
When else, except while travelling, would one find oneself in a bookshop at dawn, looking for readings to distract and perhaps inspire, staring at a photo of a window seat’s vantage point? In such a transformed universe, where ancient constraints of time, space –and expense — seem to have become irrelevant, the cover beckoned “Buy me.”
After passing through several security checkpoints and boarding the plane, one opened the book and read: “for Michele Hutchinson.” Though her name is never mentioned again in the text, there follow references to a girlfriend, “M.” The same? A mystery that enriches the experience. For one may be reading a letter to a companion, a diary, a book for the general public, or perhaps another genre entirely. At one level, reading The Art of Travel has the thrill of reading someone else’s purloined mail.
At once deeply personal and starkly objective, what de Botton attempts is to craft a new kind of self-help manual for the traveller who finds himself, or herself, at the crack of dawn, at a crowded airport, wondering (for any reason at all): “Is this trip really necessary?”
Of course The Art of Travel is not a guidebook in the practical sense, not a Frommer’s or a Michelin, or a Lonely Planet, but it is a guidebook in the philosophical sense, in that it serves as a guide for the perplexed, a book to help explain to a weary voyager why waiting for three hours to be scanned, wanded, x-rayed, patted down, quizzed, cross-examined, eyeballed, only to be eventually admitted into a small metal tube that is hurtled into space, to consume reheated unidentifiable pressed vegetable matter in tasteless sauce with plastic forks and knives, should not be seen as a hassle, a worry, or a burden, but rather as a truly privileged experience, travel being transcendental and sublime.
Seen from this perspective, travel is like a mind-altering drug (not for nothing was an LSD experience called an “acid trip”), a vacation an out-of-body experience. One can get out of it a great deal of self-knowledge, as well as knowledge of other places. The trick, as de Botton points out, is “to notice what we have already seen.”
Or, pace Ruskin and Proust, de Botton pays attention to the little things, tiny perceptions that on reflection may add up to some very big thing.
It is a truism, yet true, that fresh perspectives from travel stay with one, and the reality of any journey criscrosses with anticipation of a fantasy promised in tourist brochures; as well as remembrance of a voyage memorialized in photographs, journal entries, or sketchbooks. Between apprehension and memory is the trip itself. How to make the most of it is at the base de Botton’s brilliant argument.