The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

The art of travel… a good name for a book; as well as a worthy subject. I am not thinking about what to pack, the best way of getting a cheap deal at a bazaar, finding the unspoiled backpacker paradise in south east Asia, or whatever else your standard travel magazine may have advertised on the front page. Those are practicalities. The art is, at least by my own definition, something on a quite different level. The mindset, the approach, and the mastering thereof.

Alain de Botton's book tries to address some of the more interesting aspects of traveling: anticipation of the travel, the reasons behind a journey, seeing the landscape and, so on. The book is divided into five parts: Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return. Each section contains a couple of essays where de Botton addresses a related theme with the help of one or more locations and guides. The guides are personalities who's life deeds and writings on these subjects are cited and discussed.

All in all the book is interesting, and quite pleasant, but does of course not contain any huge secrets into the traveling arts that are not thoughts passing through the philosophically inclined traveler. However, I have a feeling this is not the purpose of the book, but to serve as a reminder of thoughts and ideas that may come to us while on a journey but then drifts away.

Generally I was more attracted to the concluding essays in the book than the early ones. I found the beginning of the book to be written like de Botton was trying to make a point, but not really being able to describe it in words, and thus mystifying it instead. There is much text about how a memory of a place is subjective to our experiences and impressions while there. It is true that this is the case, and I really find that the human mind seems to remember things this way fascinating. However, while I would like to know why it is so, on the brain level, it seems to be like de Botton is fascinated of the fact itself.

It is not at all as bad as I may have led you to believe however, because the early essays in the book does serve the purpose of introducing the reader to the related, but in my view, much more interesting question: what is the art of traveling so that we may see the beauty of a location, experience it intensely and appreciate it. These and other relating questions are the subjects for several of the texts, and I enjoyed reading them and the thoughts they provoked in me. Because although I do have a more nature scientific way of approaching things than de Botton, his observations are reminding me of thoughts of my own. On inspiration (why is it that I am always as most inspired to write and document when I am at a new place, and not when a few months have passed and it has become everyday?), and on memory.

Memory is something multi resolution, a function of both time and attention. We can choose to travel quickly, covering great distances, and see different things - like the American tourist doing the must-see cites of Europe, or a European going to New York, Washington, Los Angeles, but just flying thousands of meters over the heart land - or we can take it slow, like John Ruskin described by de Botton, and pay attention to detail.

That thought reminded me about a short story I once wrote, but never did anything with. (To be honest, it never took off properly, and now it is semi-lost on some hard drive in a box.) The idea was to write a sci-fi short story about space tourists who went from world to world photographing the globe from orbit and then warping on to the next planet without ever to land and explore the beauty. Each world was thus reduced to a mere color complexity in a picture (or in a hologram, it was the future after all) and only viewed in low resolution, as compared to the enormous task of exploring a full planet. The point I wanted to make in the story was, of course, that as the technology of travel got more and more advanced, one would be able to see more and more places in a life time, but necessarily not experience more.

In any case, I did not really manage to tie up things in the end in that story, but there is another variable in the equation: attention. When something is new and exiting it fascinate us, and intrigues us, and make us remember it more easily. A friend of mine mentioned an interesting idea during some discussion (I can not remember on what now) that we had a few years back: if one could go into the a state of mind similar to that of a curious child a child, and see everything like it was for the first time, one would learn every detail and notice all beauty. Because, to a child everything is new and unexplored. I always thought that was a great idea, and try to have that mindset as often as I can.

Now, before I get too sidetracked however, I should return to The Art of Travel. de Botton's book is easy and entertaining. It also provokes quite a few interesting thoughts (which I think is the main purpose) that I agree with. Finally, however, I should mention the guides used for each chapter. Some are well known, as Wordsworth, van Gogh, and von Humboldt; others not so. They now all have in common however, that thanks to de Bottom's interesting portraits of their life, I want to know more of each and every one. Something I find is a treasure gained from this book as good as any thought provoked.