Book: Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

The Art of Travel
by Alain de Botton

Published by Penguin (2002)

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear little of why and how we should go” 

Alain de Botton is not everyone’s cup of tea.  

Philip Marsden’s Observer review called this book “playful and erudite self-help”.  Meanwhile, Charlie Brooker in the Guardian dismissed the book as the “Little Book of Comforting Dribble” and its author as “an absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man – a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who’s forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious in a series of poncey, lighter-than-air books aimed at smug Sunday supplement pseuds looking for something clever-looking to read on the plane”.  

The Art of Travel is a philosophical and psychological examination of the anticipation of travel, travelling places, motives for travel and ideas of the exotic and the dangers of guidebooks; how we should decide what to see in a place once we have arrived.  

It also considers landscapes and sublime places, the effect of art on our ability relate to places around us and also our use cameras, our need to possess beauty and the importance of really seeing places.  Finally, he considers what we ought to bring home with us from travel; the “travelling mindset” which we should apply to our own locales.

De Botton covers all of these subjects impressively.  He relates each topic to his own travel experiences and chooses an eclectic array of guides to help him illustrate his points including Charles Baudelaire, Edward Hopper, Gustave Flaubert, Alexander von Humboldt, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Job and Vincent van Gogh.  In his Observer review, Philip Marsden noted:

His prescriptions are unarguable: remain curious, remain aware, nature and the sublime can help correct our psychological imbalances. His ability to draw quick pen portraits of his chosen writers and painters is impressive, his command of their work masterful.

If de Botton appears to some as less than enthusiastic about travel, that may be because he is as comfortable being an armchair traveller.  You get the sense that he identifies with Huysman and de Maistre and prefers an ordered, quiet existence, which is not necessarily consistent with travel abroad.  It is also possible that de Botton’s sense of curiosity may be better suited to libraries and museums rather than travelling in light of his apparent frustration that “travel twists our curiosity” by presenting sights that are linked only by their geographical location.     

Alain de Botton may be ambivalent towards travel and may worry a bit too much about what he is doing and why he is doing it.  The anecdotes he uses when applying philosophy to the everyday may at times seem ordinary and the antithesis of exciting travel, although that is part of his approach.  Yes, his style can sometimes be a bit irritating and is heavy on aphorisms.  And, yes, as Philip Marsden noted, de Botton omits “one of abroad’s most fulfilling aspects – people”.  But this is an introspective book and so may not appeal to everyone.   

However, de Botton’s ability to apply his erudition to the everyday on a wide range of topics using a variety of sources makes his approach fresh so that this is a book which may end up twisting our own curiosity in a way that may give us new insights into why we travel.   

At the risk, therefore, of being one of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Sunday supplement pseuds’, I like this book and it is one I have been back to.  

For further reading see the New York Times reviews of Mel Gussow, here, and Alan Riding, here, read Lynn Barber’s interview with de Botton here or John Preston’s review for the Telegraph, here.   

If you want to see the TV programme that provoked Charlie Brooker’s reaction it is below.  After watching it, you can see Brooker has a point.  Personally, it makes my toes curl, but don’t let it put you off the book.