Whether you fear being disappointed when you travel, you’re looking for a reason to travel, or, in fact, you’re looking for an excuse to stay home, this little collection of essays should provide the solace you need.
By sharing his own experiences on the road — yearning to stay in bed rather than exploring Madrid, arguing with his partner over sharing desserts in Barbados, seeing Provence through the eyes of Van Gogh — and by exploring the positions various writers, artists and thinkers have taken on travel over the centuries, de Botton presents to us clever insights about the urge to be somewhere else, to see something else.
This is an erudite philosopher’s perspective, to be sure, but de Botton is always accessible, and in fact, a superb writer, even putting philosophy aside. While wandering Amsterdam, for instance:
“Above me on the second floor, I could see an apartment with three large windows and no curtains. The walls were painted white and decorated with a single large painting covered with small blue and red dots. There was an oak desk against a wall, a large bookshelf and an armchair. I wanted the life that this space implied. I wanted a bicycle. I wanted to put my key through the red front door every evening. I wanted to stand by the curtainless window at dusk looking out at an identical apartment opposite and snack my way through an erwentsoep met roggerbrook en spek before retiring to read in bed in a white room with white sheets.”
Haven’t we all had this urge when seeing foreign homes? Why? De Botton explains: “We may value foreign element not only because they are new, but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland could provide. My enthusiasms in Amsterdam were connected to my dissatisfactions with my own country…”
We particularly enjoyed his piece on “Eye-Opening Art”, which examines how “works of art may in small ways start to influence where we would like to travel to”. De Botton looks at how Van Gogh has influenced the expectations of travellers to Provence, through, for instance, his interpretation of the cypresses there: “A few years after Van Gogh’s stay in Provence, Oscar Wilde remarked that there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Goh painted them.”.
We also enjoyed de Botton’s exploration of what we learn, and why, when we travel — and how it can seem simply overwhelming to be presented with historical building after historical building. For support he turns to Nietzsche, who argues that “the point of looking at an old building might be nothing more, but then again nothing less, than recognising that ‘architectural styles are more flexible than they seem, as are the uses for which buildings are made’… We might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts.”
Then again, de Botton cites Pascal: “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”
Whether your travels have been extensive, or whether you’re just heading to Thailand for a two-week beach holiday, The Art of Travel will put your trip into grand historical context. De Botton will reassure when you find yourself still worrying about things at home, when you want to skip another temple so you can sleep late, or when you do go and feel like you’ll scream if you hear another fact about the temple’s construction. This is practical philosophy for travellers.
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