“The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton
(First publication: 2002 / This edition: First Vintage International Edition 2004)
Taken before my flight from Bangkok (Suvarnnabhumi Airport) to London
If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardor and paradoxes—than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. (pg.9)
It’s been a while since my last post. Half a year, actually. I was in the longest reading slump – partly because I was just not in the mood and partly because all the books I picked up were so bland (hello, “The Luhzin Defense” and “Brideshead Revisited”) But now, I’m back on my usual groove and have enjoyed the last few books I’ve read.
…including this one.
So. I just got back from my trip to the UK a few days ago (still weeping inside). I started planning this trip back in early October and purchased this book around then – wanted something travel-related, inspiration, and written by a British that I like.
I got about halfway through it before I started my trip. I was already so ridiculously, stupidly, dramatically excited about the trip and this book kind of added more to the excitement and pushed it to an almost unhealthy level. It gave me so much inspiration and I was nodding my head agreeing to every line about the beauty, the wonder, and the magic of travel.
The first half explores “travel”: from choosing a destination, what inspires you to choose that destination, what you want to expect from your travels, the calm you feel when you stare out of a train, the frustrations you get when your dessert at that hotel at the beach doesn’t look nice, the need to keep moving and seeing what this world has to offer… I was in pre-trip bliss.
I put the book on hold during the trip (because there are too many amazing bookstores in London and I just had to read the ones that I bought right away), and continued again after I got back home a few days ago.
Reading the second half of the book post-trip gave me a completely different experience. I was feeling so depressed, mopey, and discontent with being here and not back in the UK. I’ve never felt post-trip blues so painful. So reading about “the beauty, the wonder, and the magic of travel” this time just left me wailing and bawling inside. (I know I can get so dramatic sometimes, but… seriously though.) The last chapter really hit home because he centered it on Hammersmith – the area I “lived” in for over a week in London and that I love so much. It was just like a tighter squeeze on my heart. Nostalgia and flashbacks – such pains in the ass.
The second half explores deeper into the psychology and the mind-set of when and why people travel – and about how you can appreciate what you see even more. Alain de Botton uses thoughts and writings from various people, like John Ruskin and Van Gogh, to show how to really understand all the miracles the world has to offer – and how we often dismiss it all and take it for granted. We forget the majesty of the skies and we forget how sublime mountains are. We forget how little we actually are in the universe, and how mighty nature and the universe are.
Aside from learning the different thoughts on travel and the beauty of the world, the part that really struck me was the chapter called “On Possessing Beauty”. It dug up one of my main fears in life, which is essentially “running out of time” and “not having enough time to see everything” dilemma. Alain de Botton (and John Ruskin) put “travel” and “beauty” in a way that makes me feel calmer and want to slow down; for me to focus more on appreciating beauty rather than running around everywhere, trying to see everything, because I feel like I don’t have enough time. This quote by Ruskin gave me a clearer understanding:
‘No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pass. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.’ (pg.218)
It made me reflect on my ways and my previous mindset in my past trips. I used to want to be everywhere and see everything – so I’d try to cover like, five cities in five days. However, in my previous trip, I didn’t want to rush – I spent almost 10 days in London and 4-5 in Edinburgh. By taking things slow, not rushing to go somewhere else, not craving to explore a new little cute city in the UK each day, and just walked as slow as I wanted to, I got to really appreciate the beauty of those two cities – and I really fell in love with them. I got to see the beauty because I gave myself time and actual effort to understand and observe the cities. It’s quite a turning-point in my life, actually – as ‘travel’ is one of the top things I love.
I highly suggest reading this book, if you love travel as much as I do. It’ll give you a better understanding about that blissful feeling of travel. (And you can just disregard the part about how staying home isn’t all that bad either. That’s what I did, haha)
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
Humiliation is a perpetual risk in the world of men. It is not unusual for our will to be defied an our wishes frustrated. Sublime landscapes do not therefore introduce us to our inadequacy; rather, to touch on the crux of their appeal, they allow us to conceive of a familiar inadequacy in a new and more helpful way. Sublime places repeat in gran terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves. (pg.167)
There are few emotions about places for which adequate single words exist; we are forced instead to make awkward piles of words to convey what we feel as we watch the light fade on an early-autumn evening, or when we encounter a pool of perfectly still water in a clearing. (pg.159)
Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought. The views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or plane, moving quickly enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects. They offer us brief, inspiring glimpses into private domains, letting us see a woman at the precise moment when she takes a cup from a shelf to her kitchen, then carrying us on to a patio where a man is sleeping, and then to a park where a child is catching a ball thrown by a figure we cannot see. (pg.56)
Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect. Thus we will not enjoy—we are not able to enjoy—the sumptuous tropical gardens and attractive wooden beach huts when a relationship to which we are committed abruptly reveals itself to be suffused with incomprehension and resentment.
If we are surprised by the power of one sulk to destroy the beneficial effects of an entire hotel, it is because we misunderstand what holds up our moods. We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery. (pg.25)