The Art of Travel - Reviews
Chris Wright in The Boston Phoenix, August 29 2002
Essayist Alain de Botton explores Amsterdam and Barbados, wrestles with the meaning of life, and explains 'the exoticism of shitting donkeys'
A lunch date with Alain de Botton can be a daunting prospect. A former philosophy professor at London University, the 32-year-old Swiss-born, London-based author has been known to rattle off lines like I am no great fan of Boethius." For those of us who cannot pronounce Boethius — let alone offer criticism of his work — it’s easy to imagine that sitting down to dine with de Botton might involve ample servings of humble pie. (Him: "Though not strictly fatalistic, Boethian metaphysics have suffered from a kind of Lamarckian attenuation." You: "I like soup.")
Beyond his philosophical credentials, de Botton possesses an imposing literary CV. At the age of 23, he published On Love (Atlantic Monthly, 1993), the first of three well-received novels (The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel [Picador, 1995] and Kiss and Tell [Picador, 1996] completing the trilogy). At 27, he wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (Pantheon), a witty, quirky, highly literate take on the self-help genre. A few years later, he published The Consolations of Philosophy (Pantheon, 2000), another highbrow self-help book, in which he argued that the works of Socrates, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others can help us cope with everyday problems. In July of this year, de Botton published The Art of Travel (Pantheon), which, characteristically, uses ideas gleaned from artists, novelists, and philosophers to explore themes related to travel.
"We are inundated with advice on where to travel to," the author writes in the book’s opening pages, "but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or 'human flourishing.'" In an age when human flourishing is generally the province of Oprah, Rosie, and the Chicken Soup people, evoking the ancient Greeks (eudai-what?) would seem to be a sure-fire way to ensure your book does not make too many bestseller lists.
And yet de Botton’s books do extremely well. His Consolations of Philosophy, for instance, sold more than 150,000 copies in the UK alone, and was even adapted for British TV in the form of a hit series narrated by the author himself. Today, de Botton doesn’t just have readers — he has fans. More than any contemporary author, he has helped rid philosophy of its image as a starchy, grindingly cryptic discipline. For this reason, de Botton has become, as one reviewer described him, "the [UK’s] favorite mass-market metaphysician."
In person, despite having an accent that would not be out of place at a meeting of the Oxford University Debating Society, and a pallor that suggests too many hours spent in libraries, de Botton is, like his work, surprisingly down to earth. "I do get people saying to me, 'I’m afraid to read your books; I’m sure they must be really clever,'" he says, picking at a salad Niçoise at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel. "My heart always sinks when I hear that. I’ve worked so hard to make [my books] completely understandable by absolutely anyone. I really rebel against this idea that the humanities are beyond comprehension. If you’re dealing with rocket science, sure, make it obscure, it is pret