The Art of Travel: Reviews

Rory MacLean in The Sunday Times, 19 May 2002

For the last year of his life, my uncle, who was dying of multiple sclerosis, never pushed his wheelchair beyond the end of his garden. A determined, fleet-footed life ended with him digging bone meal into the roses. “My greatest sorrow is that this disease forces me to be predictable,” he once told me. “It makes me a man of habits.”

Travel is not simply a means of escaping the confinements of the ordinary, rooted world. It is an opportunity to grasp variety, to enrich ourselves, even to search for what the Greek philosophers called eudaimonia, that is, human flourishing.

“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness,” writes Alain de Botton, “then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardour and paradoxes — than our travels.” The Art of Travel explores the “why” and “how” of travel, not the “where” and “when” we should go on holiday, as might be expected from an author whose titles include How Proust Can Change Your Life. In an engaging, personal narrative, de Botton trips through a year of globe-trotting — a holiday in the Caribbean, a conference in Madrid, a long weekend in the Lake District — making his journeys the “midwives of thought”, evoking reflection and returning home with small, life-enhancing revelations.

The book’s strength lies not in its travelogue, but rather in de Botton’s choice of travelling companions. In the age of self, many of us belittle the value of guides, of men and women who are better and wiser than ourselves. Not de Botton. He presses writers, artists and philosophers into travelling with him, riding on their shoulders to give focus and direction to his journeys.

He begins en route to Barbados. By juxtaposing his dreams of a “perfect” holiday with the work of the 19th-century French novelist J-K Huysmans, de Botton is able to explore the relationship between the anticipation of travel and its reality. Huysmans suggested that the possibility of tasting true happiness lies in projection. His 1884 novel A Rebours tells the story of a stay-at-home French aristocrat who, having never ventured further than the next village, becomes obsessed by a wish to visit London. He dreams of drinking warm beer in dark and smoky pubs, of meeting Dickensian characters, of eating roast beef.

But as the moment of his departure approaches, along with the chance to turn dreams into reality, the aristocrat hesitates. The London of his obedient imagination, informed by Baedeker’s guides and Dickens, is rich, engaging and satisfying. He knows its smells, its weather, its residents. He sees no reason to sully his dreams by enduring the practical difficulties and inconvenience of travel. He stays at home.

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