The Art of Travel

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain De Botton; Penguin, 2003. 272pp

Reviewed by Elisabetta Gasparoni-Abraham | 25 October 2003

This fascinating book, written by Alain De Botton, examines the diverse motives that moved great men of the past – like Charles Baudelaire and Edward Hopper, Gustave Flaubert, Alexander von Humbolt and William Wordsworth – to venture to new shores. He does this by juxtaposing their great experiences to the far less heroic experiences of De Botton himself. 

After having read it, you would be forgiven for not wanting – under any circumstances- to have a fellow traveller of the likes of Alain De Botton. Even if he borrows some of the most inspiring travel stories from artists and writers, explorers and philosophers, the poor De Botton seems unable to make his own journeys worthwhile.

From the anticipation of departure to what could have been the uplifting experience of being an explorer, De Botton cannot forget the petty incidents and accidents that sometimes spoil our journeys – so his memories of Barbados fade away because of a row with his girlfriend; Madrid remains unexplored because he feels too awkward to walk into a restaurant, and wants to stay in bed.

Instead of taking these crude remarks for what they are, De Botton recasts them as the quintessence of travelling. Never mind the flow of beautiful images that punctuate his guides’ great stories, for him the art of travelling looks like a rather painful experience.

Is De Botton suggesting that wherever we travel, we will not be able to get rid of our painful self and worst of all be destined to have a terrible holiday? Ironically it was De Botton that chose as travelling guides, inspiring figures of the past such as Ruskin, von Humbolt and Van Gogh to show us “the possibilities of the human mind, the force and range of the faculties, ultimately to show us the universal man”. But the contrast between their journeys and those of De Botton as the modern explorer is quite sad.

De Botton makes you wonder whether he wrote the book just for himself, but his arguments about greater reflection, more observation and a criticism of blase responses to foreign travel do fit into a mood in society which expresses concerns at whether we going too fast? Wouldn’t it be better to slow down and start pondering more?

For De Botton everything passes by when on the train and he bemoans that we cannot retain a single snap of the wonderful world out there, outside the window. So he invites us to take a walk around the neighbourhood and discover unnoticed new architecture. But surely the point of travelling is that we transcend our daily life in our local community and root ourselves in other worlds.

Ultimately, De Botton wants to convince us that local is beautiful and meaningful. I have no problems with that especially if you live, as I do, on the South Bank in London.

De Botton is pretty much a man of our times, preoccupied with his life and unable to embrace bigger and higher horizons. He cannot transcend his confinement. Whereas he tries to argue that a journey can actually offer the possibility of making you a better person, he manages to come across as the same miserable person we started off with.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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