For those who are addicted to travel – who plan their next vacation as soon as they return; who look for a plane, train, boat, anything to move from A to B – one constant underlying question pervades: Why? Why do we love travel? Why do we feel the need to escape our comfort zone and dive into the foreign? Most importantly, what do we expect to get out of it?
Alain de Botton, author of the best seller How Proust Can Change Your Life, dissects the charm of adventure in The Art of Travel. He does not simply answer these questions, however; instead he chooses exemplary philosophers, painters, and explorers (along with his own personal experiences) to illustrate the many reasons why people travel. Botton’s explanations are convincing because they maintain a sense of authority: his guides are often centuries old, proving that the art of travel is nothing new but, in fact, timeless.
The book is divided into five themes, with each theme containing one or two chapters. “Departure,” “Motives,” “Landscapes,” “Art,” and “Return” feature lessons Botton has learned through his voyages, as well as the lessons of Van Gogh, Baudelaire, Humboldt, Flaubert and others who have been profoundly influenced by travel. The lessons are more complex than what to pack or which useful phrases should be learned before take off. In the opening chapter, for example, Botton tenderly warns the reader that one cannot take a vacation from him or herself: on a beautiful beach in Barbados, he still manages to experience tension with his significant other, prompting the surprising realization that “I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”
The Art of Travel is at its best, however, when lessons are learned through the tales of historical figures. In perhaps the most philosophical segment of the book, “Motives” uses Gustave Flaubert and Alexander von Humboldt to illustrate the internal drive of travelers. Born a Frenchman, Flaubert never felt a sense of belonging to his native Rouen, instead viewing Egypt as his rightful home. Egypt embodied the exotic, and to a young man who felt trapped in a bourgeoisie French bubble, there was nothing more thrilling than running off to a country that reflected his own rustic values and identity. His response to where he was from touches a cord in all readers who travel to find themselves: “From the world,” he would reply, going against convention that nationality is inherited and not discovered.
Along the same vein, Humboldt – a German-born explorer – felt a constant need to discover. His journeys to South America, where he painstakingly recorded every geographical and cultural aspect of the land, is juxtaposed with Botton’s disappointment at finding a completely excavated Spain, where the chance for discovery is squashed by the opening of a guide book. The author advises that in a time when curiosity is still a solid reason to travel, it may be harder to fulfill the hope of discovery unless searched for through unguided eyes.
The Art of Travel explores the sublime, the beautiful, the strange and the unexpected. It looks at stages of travel we often fail to consider, such as the airport or train station, and why some people tend to feel more at home in these places than in their own living room. Botton’s thoughtful conclusions force the reader to examine what kind of traveler he or she is, and often lead to the realization that one can be an explorer, an escapist, and a vagabond all at once. Like the impressionist paintings van Gogh created in Provence – an area he escaped to in order to capture a world more vibrant than the one back home – it becomes clear that travel, too, is an art. Serving a different purpose for each painter, it is always a colorful journey, one that cannot be stuffed into maps or guides or vacation packages.
The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton, Vintage, $13.95
© Erin Kuschner