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the complete review - travel
The Art of Travel
Alain de Botton
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B+ : clever, decent fun
See our review for fuller assessment.
|London Rev. of Books
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|San Francisco Chronicle
|Sydney Morning Herald
|Wall St. Journal
No consensus, but most quite enjoyed it and some were very enthusiastic
From the Reviews:
- "(D)e Botton is the perfect guide to intelligent travel. Where we go, he argues convincingly (...) is of far less importance than an awareness of why we are on the move at all. (...) For some, the tone of this book may be a little too disingenuous at times, verging on the fey, but, on the whole, The Art of Travel is a thought-provoking delight. Don't leave home without it." - Robert Dessaix, The Age
- "Drawing on the theories and bons mots of writers, explorers, philosophers and artists, he discusses why travel is so often disappointing and how we might apply ourselves to make it more enjoyable (...) His tone is playful but informative, his style insistently clear and literal, his demeanour self-deprecating. (...) In his latest book, however, a method that in earlier works seemed charming and original is beginning to look a little well-worn." - Miranda Carter, Daily Telegraph
- "This is a beautifully crafted book of bon mots, an elegant and unapologetically popularising blend of European intellectualism and British pragmatism. (...) De Botton's is a particular kind of travel: Eurocentric, moneyed, aspirant, storied and studiedly intellectual, a retro-modern version of the Grand Tour. It hardly represents how most of us actually travel now. Rather, and importantly, it hints at the way we travel in our heads and in our armchairs, which is where most of us will be as we turn the pages of de Botton's book." - Melanie McGrath, Evening Standard
- "Alain de Bottons größtes Problem dürfte darum seine große Verständlichkeit sein: Kann man denn wirklich kühn und klug sein, wenn man als Leser alles verstehen kann ? Man kann." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "As one who makes their living from writing and travelling, I found this book frustrating. Anyone who has experienced the soulless nature of mass transportation and the glibness of guide books can understand and sympathise with what de Botton is saying. But nowhere among his themes do I see much evidence of any joy of discovery, any examination of what draws people to travel -- the fear as much as the fun. There is no hungry soul behind his own quest for new shores, just a sense of intellectual guilt." - Tim Ecott, The Guardian
- "(T)here's something rather chilling about the gulf between what de Botton has to say and the way he goes about saying it. Does a sequence of platitudes really need all that padding ?" - Christopher Tayler, London Review of Books
- "(E)ntirely delightful (.....) But away from the generalisations, this book is really an elegant and entertaining evocation of all the sensations of travel, and a manual of how to get the best out of it. (...) He is fine, and fun, when he follows the travels of celebrated predecessors (...) He is best of all, however, when discussing his own detailed and intimate responses to the making of journeys." - Jan Morris, New Statesman
- "He worries constantly about the problems he has left behind, and he is ever self-conscious about the otherness of the places he visits. And, to be frank, he can be something of a whiner. So it is often a relief when de Botton ceded his pages to his predecessors. (...) In truth, this is a book for nontravelers" - Alan Riding, The New York Times Book Review
- "This is the third of de Botton's books to make use of his own brand of playful and erudite self-help. (...) The trouble with The Art of Travel is that he clearly does not have the same enthusiasm for travel. (...) His ability to draw quick pen portraits of his chosen writers and painters is impressive, his command of their work masterful. He does omit one of abroad's most fulfilling aspects -- people. His is a solipsistic quest" - Philip Marsden, The Observer
- "Indeed de Botton does not come to praise travel, but to explore its failures and explain why they occur. (...) Yet for every instance that does convince (...) there are those that seem tepid and forced. (...) Even when his argument turns to philosophical questions, de Botton seems a little bored." - John Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle
- "There is the quality of his observations about travel itself, which constantly cast new light on a well-worn yet oddly unexplored subject. And then there are his observations about the places he visits. Here de Botton proves himself to be a very fine travel writer indeed; richly evocative, sharp and funny." - John Preston, Sunday Telegraph
- "He might not be the world's greatest traveller -- certainly that's the impression you get after he reveals his one great regret when roaming the world is that he can't leave himself behind. But de Botton is inspired to pen substantial essays on the topic." - Kendall Hill, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Its attention is turned inward on the traveller, not outward on the journey. It is a foray into consciousness. (...) If there is a ghost presiding over The Art of Travel, it is not that of Marco Polo, but of Marcel Proust. (...) The Art of Travel is pervaded by melancholy -- by travel less as engagement than as solace. But it is an elegant and subtle work, unlike any other. Its delicate intelligence rarely falters." - Colin Thubron, The Times
- "(D)e Botton recasts them freshly and sensitively. He also tries to solve them, by giving us mental baggage more appropriate to contemporary travel: the ability to see poetry in liminal places like service stations and airports, an understanding of why art can be a good guide and why guide-books can be very bad guides, cameos of men from the past who can be good companions on our journeys, even if we travel alone, or only from our armchairs. De Botton not only writes about these things, but demonstrates them through the text and illustrations." - Annette Kobak, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel is again a book that combines literary, philosophical, and artistic speculations, as well as bits of biography and autobiography and applies these to a specific subject -- in this case; travel, more or less.
(De Botton specialises in this approach, indeed, it can be found in all his books, fiction or not.)
Well-read, with some artistic sensibility and a bit of a philosophical bent, de Botton generally makes an amusing (if occasionally irritating) guide.
After tackling Proust (well), philosophy (badly), and love (repeatedly), travel seems an appropriate subject, something the young and not quite jet-setting semi-intellectual is well suited for.
In five sections, de Botton moves from Departure to Motives to Landscape to Art to Return, offering for each (but the last) two reflective pieces, such as "On the Sublime".
Each piece focusses on a specific place (or several), and is considered through the refractive lens of some literary or artistic guide -- Ruskin, Van Gogh, Edmund Burke, Edward Hopper, among others.
Always present too: Alain de Botton.
And there are also many illustrations and photographs (all, unfortunately, only in black and white): when writing about seeing clouds from an airplane window de Botton must, of course, offer the reader not one but two pictures of clouds as seen from an airplane window.
De Botton does nicely explore the strange thing that is travel -- the desire to be elsewhere, the expectations and hopes, the reality, mind-journeys, etc. etc.
He begins with a trip to the Caribbean, contrasting it nicely to Huysman's des Esseintes (a very unsuccessful traveller), and captures the longings and disappointments of any travel-undertaking well.
Amusing also: the first thing de Botton's travelling companion ("M.") did when they hit the beach in Barbados was "put on her headphones and began annotating Emile Durkheim's On Suicide".
De Botton's readers have it easier -- they can just close the book when they've had their fill of him -- but occasionally as one makes one's way through the book one senses exactly how M. must have felt.
Interestingly de Botton, always so keen to explore every detail, doesn't pause to consider what it might mean that she is blocking him (and the lovely beach) out with her headphones (and reading Durkheim).
He remains focussed -- nay, fixated entirely on himself.
De Botton is also drawn to some quirky characters -- travel-masters, of varying sorts -- and he weaves them into his book, with varying degrees of success.
A nice contrast is world-traveller Alexander von Humboldt and Xavier de Maistre, best remembered for his Voyage around my Room (see our review) (with de Botton correctly pointing out that de Maistre -- unlike the fictional des Esseintes -- actually also had gotten around quite a bit in the world).
From Job to van Gogh, de Botton finds bits of biography (and writing and art) that he tries to apply to his subject.
Much of this is quite well done: when he focusses on a specific artist he often offers some useful insights -- van Gogh allowing us to see the Provence differently (and some of the reasons -- geographic and other -- that the Provence can, indeed, be seen differently), or Wordsworth's strange success in creating a specific image of countryside and nature that in turn was embraced by an increasingly urbanized English population.
In a sense The Art of Travel is more paean to art than travel.
De Botton recognises (and reminds readers) that much of travel is uncomfortable, disappointing, and even boring.
But, as he points out: "Artistic accounts involve severe abbreviations of what reality will force upon us."
Compact, condensed: art is immediate, and allows the peruser to revel as much or as little as they want in it.
Travel is much more arduous.
De Botton even often emphasizes the simplest form of travel: the anticipation and longing to be elsewhere (or to go elsewhere), but it is art that he believes clearly offers most.
Despite focussing on different parts of a journey and of the larger concept of travel, the book remains piecemeal.
Art unifies the sections -- and there is some narrative flow -- but on the whole it could have done with a tighter structure.
The very personal contemplation -- de Botton's I-experiences -- also don't work to best effect here.
Still, there's a good deal of cleverness and fun to enjoy in The Art of Travel, and readers not familiar with the figures de Botton introduces (if you haven't read Huysmans or de Maistre, for example) will likely enjoy this cast of characters (and, one hopes, eagerly pick up some of the books discussed).
Also: its episodic character, nicely broken up further into small sections, makes for a good travel-book, easily (perhaps even: better) read a few pages at a time.
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The Art of Travel:
Alain de Botton:
Other books by Alain de Botton under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
English author Alain de Botton was born in Switzerland in 1969 and educated at Cambridge.
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© 2003-2010 the complete review
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