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Review: The Art Of Travel

THE ART OF TRAVEL,

ALAIN DE BOTTON (Pantheon Books)

[BY BRAD BIRT]

Thankfully, I didn’t have to learn the hard way that a 27-hour flight isn’t a good time to crack open The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. Such an intelligent and engaging work is best absorbed in the absence of crying babies, an overload of airplane meals and clothes in desperate need of washing.

Why is it that travel so often disappoints? Why are many journeys remembered more fondly in hindsight? Why do we plan our next trip so eagerly? Why the hunger for a foreign landscape? Why do we travel? And what of the collective sigh we breathe upon our return?

De Botton offers an answer: “If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels.”

De Botton joins with names of note from the realms of art, philosophy, literature and exploration to guide us through physical destinations and various internal stages of the journey.

Wordsworth coaxes the reader through the English countryside while Van Gogh paints Provence, and the reader is invited into conversation about what is and isn’t. Appearances from J.K. Huysmans, Flaubert, Ruskin, Humboldt, Baudelaire, Hopper and the eccentric Frenchman De Maistre—who returns travel to its basest form, sojourning around his bedroom—are interspersed with art and photography, as well as the author’s own travel anecdotes from locations all over the world.

Everyday travel observations become springboards for philosophical reflection. For example, he notes the exotic nature of airport signs and the transformative power of aircraft take-off (when one is able to mark decisive shifts in life, surveying the world from a distanced perspective before once again setting foot on the ground with some firmness and familiarity). De Botton refuses to remain merely psychological, constantly maintaining an earthy and grounded approach with humour that ensures the content remains entertainingly accessible.

If you are looking for yet another global guidebook or a philosophical treatise, look elsewhere. The Art of Travel is a masterful marriage of the routine exhilaration of travel and the life-altering possibility of philosophy.

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