How does one review this book? I’ve just finished this and I am left awestruck. It’s almost as if my entire perspective on the concept of traveling has changed. Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel is a book filled with a series of short essays that cover all aspects of travel. His writings are very essayistic in style, and his thoughts are filled with philosophy, acute observations and humor.
I was blown away by a lot of the short essays, as the author employs the words of philosophers, poets, and writers to accentuate the idea of traveling for the right purpose. In all honesty, I had begun to think about my future travel plans and have dropped some cities and added new ones. I began to question my own motives on wanting to travel to a certain city, and when that motive didn’t hold any strength, I merely dropped the idea of going to that country. Instead, my real motives came to the surface, and I came up with other countries I want to visit now.
The book is divided into five parts:
This part covers his thoughts on the anticipation that leads up to traveling. Why do you want to go? Where do you want to go? Interestingly, one observation he makes is how we build up so much in our mind what our destination is like, and when we get there, we tend to get disappointed because the reality doesn’t match up to our imagination. So it becomes important to know why and how we should travel, instead of where to travel!
“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear little of why and how we should go- though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither simple nor so trivial and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia or human flourishing.” (page 9).
This chapter covers the following areas: the service station (those little pit stops you make while driving on the highway), the airport, the plane, and the train.
“Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought: the views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or a plane, they move fast enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects.” (page 57).
This part struck me as so true as I recalled my own experiences of train travel from Madrid to Barcelona and from Moscow to St. Petersberg. I can still remember my moments in the train, admiring the landscapes, the lakes, the trees, the fields, the animals, and just being lost in thoughts.
Here, he delves into the idea of us finding foreign elements “exotic.” He travels to Amsterdam and finds the little alleyways of houses exotic. He also shares his experiences of his time in Morroco, which makes for a rather interesting reading experience.
“But there may be a more profound pleasure: we may value foreign elements not because they are new, but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland can provide.” (page 78).
He further talks about checking in with our motives for traveling. Why do we want to travel? Do we merely want to visit a place only to check it off the bucket list? Do we want to be inspired? Do we want to connect? Nietzsche suggested a kind of tourism, “whereby we may learn how our societies and identities have been formed by the past and so acquire a sense of continuity and belonging.” (page 113).
Botton himself uses his curiosity in the city of Madrid to drive himself to explore the hidden gems in the city and thereby learning so much more about himself.
In this chapter, Botton and his wife travel to The Lake District. He covers the concept of the importance of reconnecting with mother nature and to get away from the city lifestyle to get a refresher on life. According to Wordsworth, “Nature’s loveliness might, in turn, encourage us to locate the good in ourselves.” He urged us to “travel through landscapes to feel emotions that would benefit our souls.”
“Serious critical opinion seemed almost universally sympathetic to his suggestion that regular travel through nature was a necessary antidote to the evils of the city.” (page 138).
Botton’s further travels to Mount Sinai in Israel renders him to surrender to nature as he is engulfed by the huge formations of mountains. He is humbled by his experience here. He called this kind of places sublime.
“Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events.” (page 178).
My favorite part of the book where Botton travels to Provence and explores the artworks of Vincent Van Gogh.
On admiring artwork: “If we in turn like a pinter’s work, it is perhaps because we judge that he or she has selected features that we believe to be the most valuable about a scene.” (page 192).
He talks about his experiences of being in a town where Van Gogh lived and explored. He revisits those areas which are depicted in Van Gogh’s paintings, in an attempt to understand what made the painter what he did.
“Art cannot single-handedly create enthusiasm, nor does it arise from sentiments of which non-artists are devoid; it merely contributes to the enthusiasm and guides us to be more conscious of feelings that we might previously have experienced only tentatively or hurriedly.” (page 214).
He drives home an important observation about why we admire art. Do we connect with the subject matter? Do we resonate with the painter who created the artwork? Do we experience the same emotions as the painter? Does the artwork evoke any emotions inside of us- hatred, love, jealousy, joy?
In the last part, Botton talks about returning home. In an interesting observation he makes, and I am very guilty of this, he says that the act of taking photographs doesn’t hold enough place in our memories as does soaking in the experience in the moment. In other words, when you are experiencing something new at the moment, take the time to let that experience soak in. Don’t ruin the experience by taking pictures, and posing and doing it for the ‘gram.
“True possession of a scene is a matter of making a conscious effort to notice elements and understand their construction. We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how internationally we abe apprehended it.” (page 225).
Even as he returns back home, one key thing the author talks about happening within him is developing a mindset of experiencing his surroundings (even though he’s home) as if he’s never been in this place before. “Then my travel begins to bear fruit.” This was such an eye-opener to me, and as I developed this mindset as well, I started to see my hometown of Lahore in a different light. I had become a tourist in my own hometown merely by being curious about a lot of things that I just let pass by daily.