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The art of travel
Essayist Alain de Botton explores Amsterdam and Barbados, wrestles with the meaning of life, and explains 'the exoticism of shitting donkeys'

A lunch date with Alain de Botton can be a daunting prospect. A former philosophy professor at London University, the 32-year-old Swiss-born, London-based author has been known to rattle off lines like I am no great fan of Boethius." For those of us who cannot pronounce Boethius — let alone offer criticism of his work — it’s easy to imagine that sitting down to dine with de Botton might involve ample servings of humble pie. (Him: "Though not strictly fatalistic, Boethian metaphysics have suffered from a kind of Lamarckian attenuation." You: "I like soup.")

Beyond his philosophical credentials, de Botton possesses an imposing literary CV. At the age of 23, he published On Love (Atlantic Monthly, 1993), the first of three well-received novels (The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel [Picador, 1995] and Kiss and Tell [Picador, 1996] completing the trilogy). At 27, he wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (Pantheon), a witty, quirky, highly literate take on the self-help genre. A few years later, he published The Consolations of Philosophy (Pantheon, 2000), another highbrow self-help book, in which he argued that the works of Socrates, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others can help us cope with everyday problems. In July of this year, de Botton published The Art of Travel (Pantheon), which, characteristically, uses ideas gleaned from artists, novelists, and philosophers to explore themes related to travel.

"We are inundated with advice on where to travel to," the author writes in the book’s opening pages, "but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so 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.'" In an age when human flourishing is generally the province of Oprah, Rosie, and the Chicken Soup people, evoking the ancient Greeks (eudai-what?) would seem to be a sure-fire way to ensure your book does not make too many bestseller lists.

And yet de Botton’s books do extremely well. His Consolations of Philosophy, for instance, sold more than 150,000 copies in the UK alone, and was even adapted for British TV in the form of a hit series narrated by the author himself. Today, de Botton doesn’t just have readers — he has fans. More than any contemporary author, he has helped rid philosophy of its image as a starchy, grindingly cryptic discipline. For this reason, de Botton has become, as one reviewer described him, "the [UK’s] favorite mass-market metaphysician."

In person, despite having an accent that would not be out of place at a meeting of the Oxford University Debating Society, and a pallor that suggests too many hours spent in libraries, de Botton is, like his work, surprisingly down to earth. "I do get people saying to me, 'I’m afraid to read your books; I’m sure they must be really clever,'" he says, picking at a salad Niçoise at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel. "My heart always sinks when I hear that. I’ve worked so hard to make [my books] completely understandable by absolutely anyone. I really rebel against this idea that the humanities are beyond comprehension. If you’re dealing with rocket science, sure, make it obscure, it is pretty difficult. But if you’re dealing with, I don’t know, love, death, work, there’s absolutely no reason why one shouldn’t be able to understand it."

It is this democratic impulse, perhaps, that has led de Botton to apply his considerable erudition to the lowbrow self-help genre. De Botton is quick to point out, however, that readers will not find Eat Right For a Better You–type affirmations in his books. "Most self-help is absolutely ridiculous," he says. "It completely misses out on the fact that most of the time what cheers us up is real pessimism, not someone saying everything’s great, which is something Americans haven’t managed to understand, the consolations of grimness."

The Art of Travel certainly contains its fair share of grimness. The book starts out with a section titled "On Anticipation," in which de Botton and his girlfriend (identified only as "M") take a vacation to an idyllic Barbados holiday resort. "The coconut trees provided shade and milk," he writes, "the floor of the sea was lined with shells, the sand was powdery and the color of sun-ripened wheat, and the air..." Well, you get the picture. The only problem is, as de Botton notes, "I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island." In the midst of this Elysian setting, de Botton finds himself fretting about money, work, the mechanics of his digestive system. Later, he and M get into a squabble about who gets the larger portion of cr¸me caramel, and a cloud settles over the rest of the vacation.

Before he had arrived in Barbados, de Botton had sat in his poky flat in gray-skied West London and pored over glossy travel brochures as though they were soft-porn mags — airbrushed beaches, surgically-enhanced palm trees. He soon discovered, however, that the reality of travel — like the reality of sex — is a lot messier, inconvenient, and fraught with potential for discord than the version our imaginations may serve up. "Our misery that afternoon," he writes of the dessert-fueled spat with his girlfriend, "in which the smell of tears mixed with the scents of sun cream and air conditioning, was a reminder of the rigid, unforgiving logic to which human moods appear to be subject, a logic that we ignore at our peril when we encounter a picture of a beautiful land and imagine that happiness must naturally accompany such magnificence."

The Art of Travel is filled with these kinds of insights, explorations into what de Botton calls "the psychology of place." For de Botton, travel is a tricky, often discomfiting business, and he starts out his book with more questions than answers. How do we reconcile the anticipation of travel with its reality? How do we learn to pay the proper amount of attention to things? What are we looking for when we travel? What are we trying to get away from? Finally, de Botton asks whether we may revisit our own hometowns, our own bedrooms even, and feel the sense of wonder and fulfillment that distant travel, when done right, provides. In short, de Botton wants to make us better travelers, and, as a result, better people. "I love the idea of a book that sets out to show you something," he says, "to change your life in some way." And yet, in an age when travel has become a form of consumerism, when journeys are tolerated rather than valued, when destinations are viewed through the dull eye of a video camera, de Botton knows he has his work cut out for him.

"There is a sense in which we, as a culture, have a hard time looking around us," he says. "There are so many excuses not to look at things, there are always excuses not to be on your own, not be with your own thoughts, not to be digesting your own experiences. If you get on an airplane now there are a million gadgets — you can make phone calls, you can gamble. There’s never a moment when you can just be on your own, and that has to be a bad thing."

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Issue Date: August 29 - September 5, 2002
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