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Review: Alain de Botton – The Art of Travel

travel, philosophy

Preparations for Travel

In preparing for a journey, a large part is in the anticipation of the destination.  The choice seems endless, then you pick a spot somewhere on the globe and go through the process of working out the details – how you will get there, where you will stay, perhaps a short-list of restaurants to be sampled during your time there.  For me, there is also the anticipation brought about by reading around a place: finding out how place has influenced literature and art perhaps.

I happened upon Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel a couple of years ago, having read his treatise The News: A User’s Manual.  I was eager to read more of his prompts to think more, and to delve more deeply into the philosophical questions of our age.

As someone who regularly welcomes travellers to our city (Edinburgh), I have met my fair share of people who travel for different reasons: from the superficial who are here simply to ‘tick’ a list of countries visited, to travellers who were exploring the development of the earth and the emergence of the human race, having travelled from their home base in the USA to central Africa and then worked their way through Italy and on to Scotland.

travel, philosophy

Alain de Botton – The Art of Travel

I have also been reflecting recently on preparations for our own holidays this year, and thinking about how people make choices and then how they spend the time between the making of the choice and the time of experiencing the journey.

The Art of Travel

I am writing after my second reading of The Art of Travel, and I may just buy a copy to keep on my Kindle for future reference as I so enjoy the themes and illustrations which are brought out by de Botton in this book.  He structures the book around the different phases of a journey, and selects guides (different travellers of the past) to help illustrate each phase.  The book’s sections are: Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return.

There is much to discover in every section, but for me the section on Art is the one which stands out as the most insightful and moving.  He writes of travelling to Provence to look at places where Van Gogh painted, and in seeing reproductions of Van Gogh’s art in the very place where they were created, connecting more deeply with the concepts which the artist was trying to convey – for example: the movements in the cypress trees, and the intensity of the colours in particular places.

In the section reflecting about how people capture the essence of their travels, I really enjoyed the insight into the artist John Ruskin. In particular the quote which de Botton uses:

“Your art is to be the praise of something that you love.  It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.” – John Ruskin

Sometimes when I greet travellers who seem not to be enjoying their experiences, or when they complain after having spent a time in our city, I reflect on the fact that the one thing about travel which you cannot change is the person who is doing the travelling is you.  People bring their own psychological baggage with them on their travels, and it may be that it is simply not the right time for them to have travelled, or they are not open to the idea of relaxing and enjoying their experiences.  I loved this quote from Pascal, Pensées, 136:

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

De Botton goes on to use examples from an 18th century French author, Xavier de Maistre who wrote two stories about travels around his bedroom, illustrating

“that the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”

Souvenirs of our Travels

As one who is going through a purge of belongings and papers at present, the question of how we remember our travels through life has been preoccupying me.  I enjoyed de Botton’s reflections on recording beauty: whether to try to capture an instant in a photograph, or whether to spend greater time appreciating a scene by attempting to draw it to engrave it further in one’s memory.  I hope to have more time to travel when my husband retires from his professional life, and I will no doubt be returning to de Botton for further reflection on the process and meaning of travel.  I’d thoroughly recommend reading his book.

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