Monday, January 4, 2010

Book Review: The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

I booked a flight that didn't exist.

It ended with me spending a night with my old best friend from high school days and a sit-down in a train station bar with a guy coming from Montana. So I guess I can't complain too much.

In fact, I won't complain at all. I got to meet interesting people, go to one of my favorite restaurants, and meet up with one of the better people I know. So it was fantastic. And a couple of weeks earlier, my uncle gave me a book and told me to read it. With a few hours in a train station and 6 more on a train, I got to.

I read The Art of Travel in a day, or to be exact, in about five hours. It isn't exactly a technically complex book, even though de Botton writes on philosophy and quotes Flaubert (among many, many, others). The concept of it is pretty basic. It's a travel book, but instead of talking about the "what" of travel (what place to go to, what to see, what transportation, what lodging) it's the "why" of getting out. Why do some folks feel the need to leave? Why do they go where they go? That sort of stuff.

It could get really pretentious and obnoxious quite easily. De Botton avoids that. He writes well, and he explains his use of different poets and high art. This poet says this because of that. It makes sense, and de Bottom makes fun of himself to keep it from being all too much pendantical.

And sure, it's a celebration of Europeanness and high culture and all that stuff that is so cool to rag on these days. My personal favorite chapter was his "On the Exotic" which discussed Flaubert's boredom with France and white-hot desire for Elsewhere (in his case, Egypt). And this whole tug-of-war between what it means to be French, or Egyptian, or even just what it means to be Flaubert ensues. It's a microcosm of post-colonial theory in one man.

A lot of the book sort of fits in with a bit of a biography on de Botton. Apparently he was left with a huge fortune and a Cambridge education, but attempts to live off of his book earnings in lieu of all that (or as in lieu as you can be with those sort of credentials). De Botton may be a traveler, but as he puts it, all travelers are travelling to leave something. He may have been leaving his family's legacy. Not because he was shamed by it, but just to see what he could do outside of it. This book seems to be an exploration of that part of his identity that others certainly have within them.

As a product of a whole mess of immigration stories and a kid who always wants to leave wherever he is, I can understand this coming from de Botton. My desire to travel could probably stem less from a desire to see what's out there as it is to leave here. I've bounced around, and never have been too eager to go back to whever I left. For whatever reason, I don't feel the same about the whole 2007 wanderabout.

So this was a great (and quick) read. Interesting and thought-provoking while being easy and flowing. I'd recommend it to any of you all who have the tendency to fall off the face of the Earth every so often. And it makes me thing, especially in re my "wanderabout" comment above...are we ~5 years away from a great coming influx of study abroad literature? Can you imagine how much unreadable dreck there's gonna be in there?

I couldn't fit it into the narrative post-hoc, but I've fallen away from bringing songs into my posts. Here's a pretty rad, though unrelated, one, I was sent by a buddy of mine. I don't know how to mess with the embedding features, I use blogger because it is simple and I am a simple sorry about it being too big to read the sidebar. But yeah. Enjoy.

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