Any Baedeker will tell us where we ought to travel, but only Alain de Botton will tell us how and why. With the same intelligence and insouciant charm he brought to How Proust Can Save Your Life, de Botton considers the pleasures of anticipation; the allure of the exotic, and the value of noticing everything from a seascape in Barbados to the takeoffs at Heathrow. Even as de Botton takes the reader along on his own peregrinations, he also cites such distinguished fellow-travelers as Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Van Gogh, the biologist Alexander von Humboldt, and the 18th-century eccentric Xavier de Maistre, who catalogued the wonders of his bedroom. The Art of Travel is a wise and utterly original book. Don't leave home without it. From the Trade Paperback edition.
An experienced traveler and the author of five books, including How Proust Can Change Your Life, De Botton here offers nine essays concerning the art of travel. Divided into five sections "Departure," "Motives," "Landscape," "Art," and "Return" the essays start with one of the author's travel experiences, meander through artists or writers related to it, and then intertwine the two. De Botton's style is very thoughtful and dense; he considers events of the moment and relates them to his internal dialog, showing how experiences from the past affect the present. In "On Curiosity," for example, which describes a weekend in Madrid, De Botton compares his reliance on a very detailed guidebook to the numerous systematic measurements Alexander von Humboldt made during his 1799 travels in South America. De Botton compares Humboldt's insatiable desire for detail with his own ennui and wish that he were home. There are also details about a fight over dessert, the van Gogh trail in Provence, and Wordsworth's vision of nature. Although well written and interesting, this volume will have limited popular appeal. Recommended for larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/02.] Alison Hopkins, Brantford P.L., ON Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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May 09, 2004
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Excerpt from The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived. The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established, relentless reality. First came a dip in evening temperatures, then days of continuous rain, confused gusts of Atlantic wind, dampness, the fall of leaves and the changing of the clocks--though there were still occasional moments of reprieve, mornings when one could leave the house without a coat and the sky was cloudless and bright. But they were like false signs of recovery in a patient upon whom death has already passed its sentence. By December the new season was entrenched, and the city was covered almost every day by an ominous steel-grey sky, like one in a painting by Mantegna or Veronese, the perfect backdrop to the crucifixion of Christ or to a day beneath the bedclothes. The neighbourhood park became a desolate spread of mud and water, lit up at night by rain-streaked street lamps. Passing it one evening during a downpour, I recalled how, in the intense heat of the previous summer, I had stretched out on the ground and let my bare feet slip out of my shoes to caress the grass, and how this direct contact with the earth had brought with it a sense of freedom and expansiveness, summer breaking down the usual boundaries between indoors and out and allowing me to feel as much at home in the world as in my own bedroom.
But now the park was foreign once more, the grass a forbidding arena in the incessant rain. Any sadness I might have felt, any suspicion that happiness or understanding was unattainable, seemed to find ready encouragement in the sodden dark-red brick buildings and low skies tinged orange by the city's streetlights.
Such climatic circumstances, together with a sequence of events that occurred at around this time (and seemed to confirm Chamfort's dictum that a man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead), conspired to render me intensely susceptible to the unsolicited arrival one late afternoon of a large, brightly illustrated brochure entitled 'Winter Sun'. Its cover displayed a row of palm trees, many of them growing at an angle, on a sandy beach fringed by a turquoise sea, set against a backdrop of hills where I imagined there to be waterfalls and relief from the heat in the shade of sweet-smelling fruit trees. The photographs reminded me of the paintings of Tahiti that William Hodges had brought back from his journey with Captain Cook, showing a tropical lagoon in soft evening light, where smiling local girls cavorted carefree (and barefoot) through luxuriant foliage--images that had provoked wonder and longing when Hodges had first exhibited them at the Royal Academy in London in the sharp winter of 1776, and that continued to provide a model for subsequent depictions of tropical idylls, including those in the pages of 'Winter Sun'.
Those responsible for the brochure had darkly intuited how easily their audience might be turned into prey by photographs whose power insulted the intelligence and contravened any notions of free will: overexposed photographs of palm trees, clear skies and white beaches. Readers who would have been capable of scepticism and prudence in other areas of their lives reverted, in contact with these elements, to a primordial innocence and optimism. The longing provoked by the brochure was an example, at once touching and bathetic, of how projects (and even whole lives) might be influenced by the simplest and most unexamined images of happiness; of how a lengthy and ruinously expensive journey might be set into motion by nothing more than the sight of a photograph of a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze.
I resolved to travel to the island of Barbados.