THE ART OF TRAVEL by Alain de Botton

Genre: Travel
ISBN: 0375420827
Place of Purchase: library loan (update: not one soul has checked this book out since I did in 2003. Quite sad, actually)
Reading Began: June 18, 2003
Completed Reading: June 25, 2003

Overall rating: Six out of ten

Recommendation to others: Literary balm for wanderlust, though you certainly must be ready to think about your travels. It’s a good read, but it’s a different direction that I sometimes want to go.

Why I chose to read this book: After Cause Celeb, I was antsy for exotic locales. I forget how I heard of this book (read about it somewhere, I think), but I thought it would be a nice change of pace from fiction.

Further reading by this author: How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel, Status Anxiety, The Consolations of Philosophy

Comments: This was more than I originally bargained for, so it took some adjustment to the writing style of the author. I was in a “travel” mode but not a literary one. Once I adjusted, I very much enjoyed de Botton’s style and his text. I noted tons and tons of passages that seemed to speak to me (albeit, the mood of my life moment was somber and searching), and I’ve often thought again of specific subjects used in the book. This book also made me take a closer look at Edward Hopper’s work, at which time I found a true appreciation beyond “Nighthawks”. Likewise, the locales chronicled in The Art of Travel were not on my radar until reading this book, so in that way I found my world expanding. And that’s exactly what I want the travel genre to do.

Memorable passages:

One reference worth noting: Elements of Drawing by Ruskin

Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country? Why fall in love with a place because it has trams and its people seldom have curtains in their homes? However absurd the intense reactions provoked by such small (and mute) foreign elements may seem, the pattern is at least familiar from our personal lives. There, too, we may find ourselves anchoring emotions of love on the way a person butters his or her bread, or recoiling at his or her taste in shoes. To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be. Chapter Three — MOTIVES: On the Exotic (p. 75)

What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home. Chapter Three — MOTIVES: On the Exotic (p. 77)

What he loved in Egypt could be traced back to central facets of his personality. Egypt lent support to ideas and values that were part of his identity but for which his own society had little sympathy. Chapter Three — MOTIVES: On the Exotic (p. 80)

If it is true that love is the pursuit in another of qualities we lack in ourselves, then in our love of someone from another country, one ambition may be to weld ourselves more closely to values missing from our own culture. Chapter Three — MOTIVES: On the Exotic (p. 90)

Yet none of this meant that Flaubert’s original attraction to Egypt had been misconceived. He simply replaced an absurdly idealized image with a more realisitic but nevertheless still profoundly admiring one, he exchanged a youthful crush for a knowledgeable love. …he accurately defined what his journey had taught him: “You ask whether the Orient is all I imagined it to be. Yes, it is — and more than that, it extends far beyond the narrow idea I had of it. I have found, clearly delineated, everything that was hazy in my mind.” Chapter Three — MOTIVES: On the Exotic (p. 95)

We are all of us, without ever having any say in the matter, scattered at birth by the wind onto various countries, but…we are in adulthood granted the freedom imaginatively to recreate our identity in line with our true allegiances. When we grow weary of our official nationality, we may withdraw to those parts of ourselves that are more Bedouin than Norman, that delight in riding a camel through a khamsin, in sitting in a café beside a sh***ing donkey and in engaging in what Edward Lane called “licentious conversation.” Chapter Three — MOTIVES: On the Exotic (p. 98)

Nietzsche also proposed a second kind of tourism, whereby we may learn how our societies and identities have been formed by the past and so acquire a sense of continuity and belonging. The person practising this kind of tourism “looks beyond his own individual transitory existence and feels himself to be the spirit of his house, his race, his city.” He can gaze at old buildings and feel “the happiness of knowing that he is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past as its heir, flower and fruit, and that his existence is thus excused and indeed justified.” Chapter Four — MOTIVES: On Curiousity (p. 110)

Instead of bringing back sixteen thousand new plant species, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts. Chapter Four — MOTIVES: On Curiousity (p. 111)

A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity, so that new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain. Chapter Four — MOTIVES: On Curiousity (p. 122)

[Wordsworth] invited his readers to abandon their usual perspectives and to consider for a time how the world might look through other eyes, to shuttle between the human and the natural perspective. Why might this be interesting, or even inspiring? Perhaps because unhappiness can stem from having only one perspective to play with. Chapter Five — LANDSCAPE: On the Country and the City (p. 147)

Decades later, the Alps would continue to live within [Wordsworth] and to strengthen his spirit whenever he evoked them. Their survival led him to argue that we may see in nature certain scenes that will stay with us throughout our lives and offer us, every time they enter our consciousness, both a contrast to and relief from present difficulties. Chapter Five — LANDSCAPE: On the Country and the City (p. 151)

God assures Job that he has a place in His heart, even if all events do not centre around him and may at times appear to run contrary to his interest. When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God’s plan for the universe. Chapter Six — LANDSCAPE: On the Sublime (p. 171)

It is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust. Chapter Six — LANDSCAPE: On the Sublime (p. 176)

Our capacity to appreciate can be transferred from art to the world. We can find things that delight us on a canvas first but then later welcome them in the place where the canvas was painted. We can continue to see cypresses beyond van Gogh’s paintings. Chapter Seven — ART: On Eye-Opening Art (p. 205)

Art cannot single-handedly create enthusiasm, nor does it arise from sentiments of which nonartists are devoid; it merely contributes to enthusiasm and guides us to be more conscious of feelings that we might previously have experienced only tentatively or hurriedly. Chapter Seven — ART: On Eye-Opening Art (p. 209)

A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, “I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.” Chapter Eight — ART: On Possessing Beauty (p. 214)

There was only one way to possess beauty properly, and that was by understanding it, by making oneself conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) responsible for it. And last, the most effective means of pursuing this conscious understanding was by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so. Chapter Eight — ART: On Possessing Beauty (p. 216)

If drawing had value even when practised by those with no talent, it was, Ruskin believed, because it could teach us to see — that is, to notice rather than merely look. In the process of re-creating with our own hands what lies before our eyes, we seem naturally to evolve from observing beauty in a loose way to possessing a deep understanding of its constituent parts and hence more secure memories of it. Chapter Eight — ART: On Possessing Beauty (p. 217)

We are all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word paintings; our failure to do so is the result merely of not asking ourselves enough questions and not being precise enough in analyzing what he have seen and felt. Rather than rest with the idea that the lake is pretty, we must ask ourselves more vigorously, “What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations? What might be a better word for it than ‘big’?” The finished product may not be marked by genius, but at least it will have been motivated by a search for an authentic representation of an experience. Chapter Eight — ART: On Possessing Beauty (p. 227)

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. — Pascal, Pensées, 136. Chapter Nine — RETURN: On Habit (p. 248)

Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others. They may have particular visions of who we are, and hence may subtly prevent certain sides of us from emerging. Chapter Nine — RETURN: On Habit (p. 248)

There are some who have crossed deserts, floated on ice caps and cut their way through jungles but whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed. …[we should] try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen. Chapter Nine — RETURN: On Habit (p. 249)


About Jules Q

sharing stories of life, faith, and love for pop culture

Posted on 26 June 2003, in What I Read and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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