The Art of Travel

Alain de Botton's greatest gift perhaps is to quietly hold up love, happiness and kindness to eye-level. In his palm, belief systems and virtues lie docile and friendly, waiting for us to make the first move from behind our toy fortresses. Regardless of what de Botton writes, novels or erudite essays, his compass remains resolutely pointed to an ethical north, to the exploration of our everyday crises of faith.

In an interview in 2002 he said, 'I am very attracted to sincerity in writing. One of the favorite things I ever read about one of my favorite authors, Stendhal, was Lytton Strachey's remark that he combined the emotional intensity of a twelve-year-old schoolgirl and the penetrating vision of a high court judge. That's definitely a combination I admire -- and aim for.'

If you are a reader of the snotty ilk, who has nightmares of being seen in the self-help section, the de Botton will worry you. His prose is sign-posted with impending revelation in the way self-help books are. The names of his books indicate a strong engagement with the self-help genre:How Proust can Save your life, The Architecture of Happiness, Status Anxiety. So is it alright to be seen reading a de Botton, or is he going to be the Yanni of this decade?

Alain de Botton would be highly qualified to examine the question of why we worry about what we are seen to be reading. In his characteristic back-to-basics manner, he thinks that status anxiety of any nature is a manifestation of our desire to be loved. Yes, that boy you know, who will not be seen in public without product in his hair, he is asking for love too. This sort of pat analysis ought to be detestable despite the fact that it is well-written but it is not! de Botton returns to a time when philosophy was not the mystifying stuff that it became post Karl Popper. Philosophy with Alain de Botton is entertaining and relevant, if not particularly rigorous.

I just finished a lovely de Botton called The Art of Travel. In this book de Botton examines our desire to get away. To do this, he sometimes records, Proust-like, the minutae of our travel experiences. Equally smoothly he steps back to look at our motivations. To this end, he assembles a strange crew: Baudelaire, Wordsworth, John Ruskin,
Edward Hopper, Gustave Flaubert Alexander von Humboldt and Xavier de Maistre.

Of the lot, Humboldt
and Xavier de Maistre are at two ends of the spectrum. To quote:

"Two approaches to travel:Journey to the Equnoctial regions of the New Continent ;Journey around my Bedroom. The first required ten mules, thirty pieces of luggage, four interpreters, a chronometere, a sextant, two telescopes, A Borda theodolite, a barometer, a compass, a hygrometer, letters of introduction from the king of Spain and a gun, the latter, a pair of pink-and-blue cotton pyjamas."

And between the intrepid and eccentric, the book has an elegant phalanx of artists and writers all asking us why we lock our homes and leave.


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