Posted by: Bob Fisher | July 1, 2013

Planespotting with Alain de Botton

Travel book clubs

From time to time it has occurred to me that travel journalists are also contributors to a global, collective, and virtual book club whose members enjoy the real thing, or even enriched armchair travel.

Book clubs, of course, vary in their composition and rules of behaviour. Some are highly organized and formal entities at which a book is “presented,” and, one assumes, is recommended. Not being a book club member myself, I imagine that in such a group it would require considerable intellectual courage and the ability to do what professional literary reviewers do for a living – daunting to say the least.

What if they don’t like my book? And then, I imagine there are the kind of laid back book clubs of devoted and conscientious readers who just like to get together, loll about, gab, and let the literary times roll.

So why don’t we start a virtual book club devoted to travel writing? Who wants to organize it? Who wants to start? All right. All right. I’ll start.

The book I have chosen today is not recent; in fact it was published in 2002. But, this is a book that has really stood the test of time. It’s also one of my all-time favourite books because it takes a highly conceptual approach to travel.

The book is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. It’s a book that explores in a very psychological and philosophical manner the very nature of travel as a distinct form of human behaviour.

Has anyone read it already? Well you should.

In the book de Botton has defined travel as an art form. There is a lot I could say about The Art of Travel – and I’m more than willing to answer any questions afterwards during our tea and cookies time – but basically it seems to me that you will like this book because de Botton asks some very fundamental questions, like why we travel; and how we can travel artfully and in an enlightened fashion.

But permit me if I digress for a moment…..

The Art of Travel also confirms what we have known for a very long time; that travel is the most experiential form of learning. It is also a multi-factored human behaviour that since the beginning of human civilization has been manifested in many ways and for many reasons. To Homo sapiens sapiens, travel has meant survival: a search for ideals; an escape from one reality to another; simple pleasure (some call it “fun”); a physical, psychological, and spiritual process – and much more.

It seems to me that travel has defined us as a species.

And then there are those who not only travel, but write about it. Now there’s a synergistic combination of behaviours if there ever was one.

The other “oldest” profession in the world

My reference is not totally tongue-in-cheek given how hard most of us – members of The Travel Writers Virtual Book Club – work at “getting there.” And part of our challenge, or dare I say even struggle, is to avoid selling out to the highest bidder and having to slavishly follow “writers’ guidelines” that do not always reflect changing realities – or qualitative considerations.

But let’s not forget that what we do as travel writers is as old as the hills.

Travel writing, travel journalism, or travel literature (a mosaic medium or stories on a continuum – take your choice) have always taken many forms. Travel writers are essentially storytellers, and this key function/role/tradition in the “tribe” goes back many centuries. The human stories, lessons inherent in them, and how they are told are as diverse as the tales themselves. And that is why travel and narrative skills are inextricably linked.

And given the advent of the electronic literary age when almost anyone who has been somewhere stimulating – which may be just around the corner by the way – can tell his or her story to the world, it is important to take a closer look at the multidimensional craft of travel writing, and indeed the nature of travel itself.

And this is what Alain de Botton does in The Art of Travel.

In the book he explores many of these issues; and what in essence he does is redefine the nature of travel – and our perceptions of it.

No stranger to travel, especially given that he comes from a Sephardic Jewish family that left what today is Spain in 1492 and settled in Egypt, de Botton seems to have inherited an innate sense of what it really means to travel.

I should warn you that The Art of Travel is not a travel guide, at least not in the traditional or conventional sense of the term. Like other iconoclastic travel “writers” (Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin, Cleo Paskal, Paul Theroux … any others you want to mention?) de Botton transcends conceptual borders by emphasizing the philosophy, the psychology, and the hyper-sensory nature of travel, which, if the traveller allows herself or himself to make this transition, will also allow her or him to go much deeper into the destination. This book is a “travel guide” only in as much as it creates a new kind of literary resonance, making the mundane in the world of travel fresh and new.

Shift happens

Why would any sane person these days (especially a travel writer) spend time sitting in a parking lot at Heathrow watching planes take off.


And yet, that is how the book begins. But even watching planes take off gives de Botton (and us) some initial insight. He explains it this way:

“There is psychological pleasure in this take off too, for the swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation…. the display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous decisive shifts in our own lives, to imagine that we too might one day surge above much that now looms over us.”

The ritual of watching planes take off recalls (for those of us who remember or who actually flew on the early propeller-driven planes), was what we often used to do, and which I understand a lot of folks still do.

And this is where I would like to pick up on a key theme that de Botton doesn’t actually say outright, but it’s inherent in his thesis.

It is in the imagining of others travelling (arriving or departing) to and from what used to be, but are no more, far distant places, which is at the heart of his own initial travel experience in this book. And although expanding one’s mind through the medium of travel has become a cliché, de Botton manages to demonstrate that it (even the vicarious variety) is a personal growth and transformational experience.

Now I must admit that, as in all his books, he can tend to get a bit carried away with his wordplay, and become even a touch … um … obfuscating.

For example, I’m still trying to think through the following:

“A storyteller who provided us with such a profusion of details would rapidly grow maddening. Unfortunately, life itself often subscribes to this mode of storytelling, wearing us out with repetition, misleading emphases and inconsequential plot lines. It insists on showing us Bardak Electronics, the safety handle in the car, a stray dog, a Christmas card and a fly that lands first on the rim and then in the centre of the ashtray.

Which explains how the curious phenomenon whereby valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality. The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”


Nonetheless, The Art of Travel, is like a refresher course in travel journalism; if you are sufficiently sensitized to where you are, whether the destination is some well-known travel destination or just a service station or a cheap motel, de Botton shows us how we can do what he likes doing. He calls it wordpainting. And boy does he love to wordpaint:

“Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts requiring large views, new thoughts, new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.”

The Art of Travel is now available on Kindle.


What the hell is that?

Other recommended travel-related books by Alain de Botton

I also found his book The Architecture of Happiness very travel-integrated because so much of what we experience when we travel is the man-made physical setting.

“It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.”

And his exploration of the role of literature in human society in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life has implications for travel especially given the growing niche market of literary travel.

“Sometimes in the afternoon sky a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.” – Marcel Proust, from Remembrance of Things Past

Alain de Botton

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