Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Art of Travel

While I have travelled quite extensively in the past, lack of funds has kept me pretty close to home for a while now. I thought that maybe I could travel vicariously through The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton's take on some of the philosophical implications of travel in the 21st century. Luckily it worked, and rather than feeling frustrated by tales of journeys I could not myself take, I have been inspired to appreciate my immediate surroundings more genuinely.

The Art of Travel is an easy read but surprisingly thought-provoking and compelling- I whizzed through it in two days. The book itself is structured like a journey, beginning, naturally enough, with 'Departure', covering 'Motives', 'Landscape' and 'Art' before finishing off with 'Return'. Within each of these broad sections there are chapters that look at particular aspects of travel. Each chapter concentrates on a place and one or two artists, writers, philosophers or scientists. It is this glance into famous perspectives on travel that I most enjoyed.

In the chapter entitled 'On Curiosity' de Botton examines the thoughts of 19th century scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt in order to explain what makes us curious, what motivates our interest in a new place. He contrasts the curiosity of Humboldt for the smallest details of nature in his explorations of South America with his own feeling of inertia during a trip to Madrid. His analysis of curiosity is particularly interesting:

Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask: 'Why is there good and evil?' 'How does nature work?' 'Why am I me?'. If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until, at some point, we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones... We start to care about the foreign policy of a long-dead Iberian monarch or about the role of peat in the Thirty Years War.

There is also an interesting chapter entitled 'On the Country and the City' which looks at Wordsworth and the role of the Romantic movement in encouraging a appreciation of nature in our travels.

My favourite section though is 'On Possessing Beauty', in which de Botton looks at the need people feel to 'own' part of the beauty that they see. On a simple level this might mean taking a photo or buying a souvenir, but through the ideas of John Ruskin, de Botton examines a more profound way in which we can possess beauty. Ruskin believed that it was only through understanding what we saw that we could truly take it with us, and the best way to gain understanding of what we see is to transfer it into art either by drawing it, or by creating a 'word-painting', a piece of descriptive writing. Ruskin emphasised that we should draw or write about what we see 'irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.' To that end, Ruskin spent part of his career teaching carpenters in London to draw, hoping that by doing so they would begin to really look at the world around them. This seems a lovely way to express the need that many of us feel to draw, paint or write, even if we aren't great artists.

Finally de Botton finishes with a reminder that we must learnt to appreciate our surroundings, that we needn't travel far to see things in a new and refreshing way, and that perhaps before we launch out for distant exotic climes we should ' notice what we have already seen'.


Me said...

This sounds like my kind of book! Thanks for the wonderful review.

Arukiyomi said...

de Botton never fails to stimulate me to think about things in new ways. I highly recommend Status Anxiety if you enjoyed this.

jess said...

Thanks for your comments. I'll be sure to read 'Status Anxiety'. I'm also keen to read de Botton's book on the Romantics.

LK said...

I have read his book on Proust. This sounds like one to try out, too.

jeff said...

I love The Art of Travel. As an expat and a frequent traveler, this book has really helped to focus my thoughts on appreciating every place that I travel and where I live.

I did also read his book on Proust but didn't like it as well, even though now I'm starting volume 2 of In Search of Lost Time.