The Art of Travel

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The Art of Travel By Alain de BottonThe thought of taking a holiday, spending time away from work and home – the scenes we know well, fills most of us with excitement and pleasure. We look forward to visiting places we consider more beautiful or which offer a more appealing lifestyle than our everyday experiences. Television programmes, holiday brochures and guidebooks offer a wealth of recommendations on where to go and what to see when we get there. In “The Art of Travel“, Alain de Botton considers why we chose those destinations in the first place, why we are often disappointed by the reality of our travel experiences and what we can do to avoid this degree of disappointment.

As well as personal observations made on his own travels, de Botton uses examples from classical writers and thinkers such as Flaubert and Wordsworth as well as paintings by Van Gogh and Turner (amongst others) to illustrate his arguments.

De Botton examines such questions as why we are drawn to vast waterfalls or mountainous scenery – snow-capped Alpine peaks and the like. Usually we do not appreciate being made to feel small but this discomfort does not seem to apply in the presence of these enormous natural features. Why is this?

In another chapter, de Botton asks whether certain destinations appeal to the individual because they offer the antithesis of the things which dissatisfy us at home. He suggests that “what we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger in vain for at home”. To illustrate this point, de Botton draws upon the life and works of the French writer, Flaubert. As a child and into young manhood, Flaubert was obsessed with the idea of going to Egypt, known in those days as the Orient. He wrote that France bored him and he bemoaned the prospect of spending his life practising law in some provincial backwater. Flaubert saw the Orient as a place where people were not concerned with the topics which occupied the people he met each day at home, namely “taxes and road improvement”. However, when he finally visited Egypt, Flaubert was beside himself with grief: he hated the place, found it primitive and unpleasant. This ties in with de Botton’s suggestion that one of the main reasons for our disappointment with travel is that while we can imagine what the pyramids (for example) look like we don’t imagine ourselves actually there in our dreams so when we find that it is hot and dirty and smelly and that we get pestered by beggars or people trying to sell us junk we don’t want, we are disillusioned.

This is not an especially easy book to read. Despite having studied philosophy as part of a degree course, I have always struggled to read philosophical arguments when they are set down on paper. I found myself having to re-read some sections and digest a short section at a time. However, this is not to say that de Botton writes in a particularly academic or highbrow way. The author has taken great pains to make this book a pleasurable read as well as stimulating thought.

He has divided the book into five main ideas (departures, motives, landscape, art, return) although my feeling is that he does not stick closely enough to these ideas. He breaks up each section into a series of ideas which follow a logical course and which are punctuated with well-placed questions. This allows the reader to ponder each question at leisure and to decide for him or herself when to invite de Botton to continue. In this respect, de Botton has done much to make philosophy accessible to those who have not studied the subject formally.

I am a keen traveller and the idea of examining the reasons behind my travel preferences and habits appealed to me. I found the first couple of chapters addressed points of the kind I had expected but that it drifted off in the middle of the book and seemed to be looking intensively at ideas around aesthetics and why we find some things beautiful but others not so. However as the book made its way to a conclusion, we returned to a more travel-orientated theme and seemed back on course.

“Yes, de Botton misses the obvious – we travel because it gives us pleasure – but he does open the mind to get the reader to think a little differently…”

It may sound rather patronising to suggest that this sometimes pompous sounding philosopher can propose ideas to help you enjoy your annual two weeks in the sun more but the author does throw up some interesting ideas that are worth considering. He says “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to”. I think this is often the case when we first arrive at our holiday destination having maybe had a long and uncomfortable journey, getting lost finding the hotel or having packed in a hurry and forgotten loads of stuff. Our tetchiness when we arrive hot and bothered can often colour the first day or so and affect our impressions of our destination. When I arrived in Havana – a city I had long yearned to visit – I was immediately beset by Cubans eager to persuade us to part with my money; struggling with jet lag and feeling hot and dirty I immediately went on the defensive and decided I didn’t like Cuba at all!

I think that this book would be an excellent introduction for someone who has not studied or read any philosophy before because the themes de Botton explores are ones which most of us can identify with; there can be few amongst us who have never taken a holiday or at least have never thought about one. His final thoughts on how we can make our everyday lives more appealing so that we do not always crave something else are ideas which anyone can appreciate.

Although this book can be an effort to read, I found it thoroughly worthwhile and feel all the richer for having persevered. Yes, de Botton misses the obvious – we travel because it gives us pleasure – but he does open the mind to get the reader to think a little differently and for this I thoroughly recommend “The Art of Travel“.

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Art of Travel (The)
by Alain de Botton

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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