Quotable: Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel

I finished reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel earlier this year, but I couldn’t come up with a good way to review the book. Instead, what I did was highlight interesting passages from the book and related them to my own travels. Below, I reproduce a post which appeared on my photoblog, Erudite Expressions, in August of 2010. The Art of Travel resonated with me strongly, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I hope you find these quotes interesting as well.

We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, 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’.

The above quote appears near the beginning of Alain de Botton’s excellent book, The Art of Travel. I finished reading the book earlier this year, and I’ve been meaning to share some words of wisdom for quite a while here on Erudite Expressions.

After I read that paragraph, I scribbled a note in the margin of the book (I purchase all of my books exactly for this reason: to be able to make notes): is this the thesis of the book? Because this notion is quite compelling, and requires a bit of introspection.

When people ask me to recommend where they should travel, I may be quick to blurt out a response, but the explanatory factor may take a bit more time to ponder. For me, I think walking around with my SLR and photographing the scenes around me is the single most effective method of remembering. I organize my photos by dates in my Lightroom catalog because I remembers dates easily. The photo above I captured on July 15, 2009 in Zürich, Switzerland. The actual date isn’t important; it’s just my method of organizing my travels in my head…

I am posting an image of Zürich for two reasons. First, it is the birthplace of the author Alain de Botton. But it was also my destination and departure point last year: I flew into Zürich from Atlanta, and flew from Zürich to New York City twenty-one days later. What I remember flying into the airport is picking up my luggage, taking an escalator down to the train ticket booth, and redeeming my Eurail pass. The cashier spoke flawless English, but I forgot to ask him which way I should head to catch my train to Vienna, Austria. So I came back around, stood in line the second time, to ask him another question…

I remember taking a short train ride to get to the central train station in Zürich. I actually arrived early and had the chance to catch the earlier train (departing around 11AM) to Vienna. But I had already made plans (not reservations) to catch the 2PM train, so I ended up walking around the train station, buying a super expensive bottle of Coca-Cola (it cost more than $3 after I converted Swiss Francs to dollars), going into a downstairs mall (to purchase a SIM card for my phone, which I couldn’t get to work), and finally finding some alone time on a bench where I paid to get some internet coverage so I could send out an email to friends/relatives that I was safe and sound in Europe.

I mention these seeming trivialities because of this passage in The Art of Travel:

A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journey through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’. We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness. We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite. We tap a finger on the window ledge. A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread. It starts to rain…We wonder where our ticket might be. We look back out at the field. It continues to rain. At last the train starts to move. It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops. A fly lands on the window. And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journey through the afternoon’.

Quite lovely, no? I didn’t expect all of that to have happened in one minute, but this was a noteworthy inclusion in the text.

Are you the kind of person that tends to be gloomier or sulkier at home compared to when you’re on vacation? I wonder if this is the universal truth:

We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (after an argument in a raffia bungalow under an azure sky) that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.

If you’ve ever traveled, did you notice how you can (or were) drawn to the mundane, the ordinary? Alain de Botton writes:

If we find poetry in the service station and the motel, if we are drawn to the airport or the train carriage, it is perhaps because, despite their architectural compromises and discomforts, despite their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicity feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.

I wouldn’t disagree.

If you’ve been following Erudite Expressions, you will know that I love to post detail shots. Perhaps I am walking on a street and a sign catches my fancy. Or I see a peculiar street sign. Or a brick on a cobblestone road which has loosened. While these things may be inconsequential on their own, I believe that collectively they can enamor us. Alain de Botton begins one of my favorite paragraphs in the book:

Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country?

It is here that I pause for a moment and mention that I read The Art of Travel in 2010, long after I photographed the Doors of Prague. If you haven’t seen that photo essay, please do so: I think it represents some of my best work.


A massive door in Prague. Click on the photo to see my photo essay.

Moving on, de Botton continues:

Why fall in love with a place because it has trams and its people seldom have curtains in their homes? However absurd the intense reactions provoked by such small (and mute) foreign elements may seem, the pattern is at least familiar from our personal lives. There, too, we may find ourselves anchoring emotions of love on the way a person butters his or her bread, or recoiling at his or her taste in shoes. To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be.

Wonderful perspective, with which I agree whole-heartedly.

What do you think? Have you ever thought of why you travel (or why you would recommend a certain place to someone)? How about your attention to the mundane? And the details? All of these things, as I read the book, resonated with me and what I photograph…