Alain de Botton: The Art of Travel

“Ruskin was distressed by how seldom people noticed details. He deplored the blindness and haste of modern tourists, especially those who prided themselves on covering Europe in a week… ‘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 pace. It does… a man… no harm to go slow; for his glory is not all in going, but in being.’”

The really precious things are thought and sight! For his glory is not all in going, but in being! How beautiful is that?!

De Botton presents the chapters in an interesting way.  For each chapter there are featured places and featured guides. In Chapter 8, some of the places are Madrid, Amsterdam, Barbados, and the guide is John Ruskin.  In Chapter 7, the place is Provence, and the guide is Vincent Van Gogh. The places are de Botton’s destinations and the guides are the writers or artists who influenced his consciousness as he traveled.

“Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by whom we are with,” he writes. And in another line, “A danger of travel is that we see things at the wrong time, before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity.” And how do we develop this necessary receptivity? The right company! Literature! Art! Art, he writes, are “immensely subtle instruments” that guide us to what we should pay attention to.

The Architecture of Happiness once accompanied me on a trip to Cambodia and deepened my experience with the country’s elaborate 12th Century structures, and yet The Art of Travel ironically kept getting shelved for some reason. But the pandemic that has forced me to stay put finally reunited me with this, and it is certain to augment future travels.

There are passages where I cannot relate with how de Botton feels about certain things, but I relish reading him for his enduring leitmotif — endeavoring against superficial experiences and a shallow existence. This book reminds me of something I wrote after my first solo international trip: “That is the thing about Utopia. It is not a place. If you go to Bali, do not expect to find Utopia, Faith, Peace, or Love. If you go to Bali, travel with these things within yourself and it is certain that you will find Beauty. So much Beauty.”

On this, de Botton and I surely agree that our experiences of a destination will depend so much on what we carry within us.

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