The Art of Travel: Reviews

John Freeman in the San Francisco Chronicle, 4 August 2002

Read at the San Francisco Chronicle website

Over the past decade a new crop of professional travelers has emerged. These gourmands regale us with their stories of truffle hunting in Provence or sipping wine in Tuscany. It’s so easy, their books implore — just drop everything and indulge.

The truth of the matter is that it takes a sizable chunk of change, or lack of children, to just drop one’s worries and go see the world. Besides, how often do we splurge for that big vacation, only to have it feel like a hassle, a disruption of routine, an expensive chore?

What a refreshing change of pace, then, to have Alain de Botton as a guide. Reading his new book, “The Art of Travel,” one gets the impression that de Botton would rather sit in a library than lounge on a beach in Barbados or high-step through the underbrush of England’s Lake District.

Indeed de Botton does not come to praise travel, but to explore its failures and explain why they occur. In keeping with the high-minded, self- help spirit of his previous books, “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Consolations of Philosophy,” he turns to those most finicky travelers — artists and writers — probing their complaints to better understand his own.

De Botton wisely deals with the biggest issue straight off in “On Anticipation,” an essay that humorously describes his profound sense of disappointment on visiting the island of Barbados. All too often, de Botton argues, these things happen because we get our urge to travel from visual imagery or literature — for de Botton, it was a painting of a Barbados beach – - both of which edit out all travel’s large component of tedium. As he writes:

“A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the town of X and after a night in a medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply ‘journey through the afternoon.’ We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. . . . And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journeyed through the afternoon.’ ”

To truly enjoy traveling, de Botton says, we must learn to edit what we see in the same way artists single out and elevate aspects of reality in their work. Close study of art and literature, he says, can help us do this.

To illustrate his point, de Botton shuttles between several trips he took in recent years, showing how various artists and writers have helped him salvage some modicum of pleasure from them. Thus, from Edward Hopper de Botton learns to appreciate the melancholic beauty of gas stations, hotel lobbies and all-night diners; from Vincent Van Gogh he discovers how to appreciate the plethora of cypress trees in Provence; and from William Wordsworth he begins to understand how to be comfortable before nature’s terrifying spectacle.

The key word in the last sentence is “begins.” For in order to convince us that boning up on ways of seeing improves the quality of travel, de Botton must show us it has improved his own.

Yet for every instance that does convince — de Botton’s depiction of seeing Provence after viewing Van Gogh paintings is especially lovely — there are those that seem tepid and forced. For example, de Botton’s assertion that a week in the Lake District makes London’s traffic jams that much more bearable sounds a lot like a city dweller’s attempt to relieve himself of the guilt that comes with living a life bereft of nature.

Even when his argument turns to philosophical questions, de Botton seems a little bored. “How does a person come to be interested in the exact height at which he or she sees a fly?” he wonders in “On Curiosity.” Questioning the origins of curiosity seems a sneaky way around explaining one’s own lack of it.

About the only travel de Botton makes a strong case for is that which requires no locomotion at all: intellectual exploration. To wit, one of the most fascinating figures in the book is Xavier de Maistre, a Frenchman who wrote a book called “Journey Around My Bedroom,” which claims that shifting from one’s bed to the couch can be as profound as journeying overnight to London.

It’s an apt note on which to end this book because, like many self-help books, “The Art of Travel” encourages one to contemplate change without proving that it’s absolutely necessary. Go ahead, de Botton quietly says, keep on keeping on, kick those feet back, an armchair is about as good as it gets.

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