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.

Alain de Botton: How Proust Can Change Your Life

“It is unfortunately easier to lose a lover than complete In Search of Lost Time.” How funny but true!

Devoting the year 2009 to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was one of my most rewarding undertakings as a reader. It is, indeed, easier to lose a lover, but basking in Proust is what I imagine having synesthesia would be like. The first volume alone led to an artistic rebirth; but by the end of all seven volumes I realized that it had instilled something so delicately through its entirety — empathy.

De Botton does not mention empathy but touches on how “experiences of fictional characters afford us a hugely expanded picture of human behavior” and nods toward artists “by whom our eyes are opened.” This is De Botton’s dissection of Proust, the colossal work, and its effects on the reader. For those who have not read Proust, it can serve as an introduction; and for those who have read Proust, a confirmation of the common reader’s exact thoughts, albeit expressed meticulously in a superior and delightful way.

There are two main things that stood out out for me:

The ending. It sings about the strength of the written word right from the beginning; and this makes the closing of the book unanticipated because it transitions into a gentle admonition for readers: “It is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us do so.” It warns against artistic idolatry and adds this Proustian reminder: “Reading is on the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.”

The view on escapism. Perhaps it is mainly the term that bothers me that I have always been uneasy with the idea of literature or any art form as a means of escapism. So when de Botton points out that escapism was not Proust’s way of handling the novel, it spoke to me and I felt understood without having to explain myself.  He does not say escapism is a bad thing, but elucidates how Proust’s opinion is more attuned to art’s potential to affect our lives rather than distract us from it.

Although it is easier said than done, I think this is also a beautiful and subtle nudge for us to try our utmost to live lives we do not feel the need to escape from.

Elif Batuman: The Possessed

“One can have a very lofty idea of literature, and at the same time have a good-natured laugh at it,” Proust said in reply to a friend’s question on how seriously books should be taken.

This is exactly what Elif Batuman does in this essay collection that doubles as a memoir. The title is lengthy and self-explanatory, and based on her book titles, one can tell how influenced she is by Russian literature: The Idiot , which I read in March, and The Possessed. It is entertaining how she manages to write such serious topics with a candid humor. Elif Batuman is of Turkish descent and she even makes fun of Orhan Pamuk. Haha!

Although written seven years earlier than The Idiot I seem to have enjoyed this more as it does away with much of the the main character’s adolescent romantic concerns present in the former.  Perhaps it was the three sections of her summer in Samarkand that made this more appealing to me, where she learns that the Old Uzbek language has a hundred different words for crying! Or maybe it was that passing line that I really loved, “Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more?”

Despite not being able to say that this will be a favorite, it’s funny how it contains passages that I know will stay with me forever.

Alain de Botton: The News – A User’s Manual

— “A contemporary dictator wishing to establish power would not need to do anything so obviously sinister as banning the news: he or she would only have to see to it that the news organizations broadcast a flow of random-sounding bulletins, in great numbers but with little explanation of context, within an agenda that kept changing, without giving any sense of ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short while before, the whole interspersed with constant updates about the colorful antics of murderers and film stars.  This would be quite enough to undermine most people’s capacity to grasp political reality — as well as any resolve they might otherwise have summoned to alter it. The status quo could confidently remain forever undisturbed by a flood of, rather than a ban on, news.”

— “The opposite of facts is bias.”

— “The news may present itself as the authoritative portraitist of reality. It may claim to have an answer to the impossible question of what has really been going on, but it has no overarching ability to transcribe reality. It merely selectively fashions reality through the choices it makes about which stories to cast its spotlight on and which ones to leave out.”

— “For all their talk of education, modern societies neglect to examine by far the most influential means by which their populations are educated. Whatever happens in our classrooms, the more potent and ongoing kind of education takes place on the airwaves and on our screens.”

— “To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity.”

— “…without regular contact with poetry, we may lose our vitality, cease to understand ourselves, neglect our powers of empathy or become unimaginative, brittle and sterile. Literature… is the medium that can reawaken us to the world.”

A manual on how to approach and handle the news whether you are at the giving or receiving end; a challenge for “journalists in a hurry” to turn to art; a masterclass in journalism and photojournalism, and of course — because this is Alain de Botton — life.

Elif Shafak: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division

October 22, 2021

“It is mostly through stories that we learn to think, perceive, feel and remember the world in a more nuanced and reflective way. As we gain a better understanding of the struggles of people from different backgrounds, and start to imagine lives beyond the one we are living, we recognize the complexity and richness of identities and the damage we do to ourselves and to others when we seek to reduce them to a single defining characteristic.”

“If wanting to be heard is one side of the coin, the other side is being willing to listen.”

“…we have become bad listeners and even worse learners. Whether in public or digital spaces nuanced debates are not welcome anymore. Instead there are clashing certainties… They are not there to listen and they are not there to learn.”

“If and when I am a reluctant listener, I will also become a poor learner. I will interact less and less with theories and opinions that do not agree with mine. And there will come a point when I will simply stop talking to people who are different from me.”

“When coexistence is undermined in this way societies become extremely polarized and bitterly politicized, ever wary of the ‘other side and their intentions’. Democracy, which is essentially about compromise and negotiation, conflict resolution and pluralism, a system of checks and balances, suffers from this constant tension and escalating antagonism… It is not a coincidence that all across the world authoritarian demagogues go to great lengths to incite and inflame polarization. They know they will benefit from it.”

Written by Elif Shafak during the pandemic and reading this amidst the cacophony of the Philippine political menagerie, this little book cannot be more relevant.

What if we can transform this age of division into an age of reading, connecting, engaging, listening, learning, examining our assumptions and stereotypes, expanding our minds, and softening our hearts? Who is willing?

Karl Ove Knausgaard: So Much Longing in So Little Space

November 26, 2021

Edvard Munch beyond and behind 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘚𝘤𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘮, written by Karl Ove Knausgaard beyond and behind the bestselling memoirs.

It reads like a personal meditation on the driving force for art, literature, music, the impact of emotional and psychological experiences on the artistic process. In essence, it is enlightening art investigation, history, and criticism… but after all of these, splendidly rendered inconsequential by Knausgaard who ultimately acknowledges that real art transcends words.

“𝘈𝘯 𝘢𝘤𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘢𝘳𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘪𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘴𝘦𝘦𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘢𝘯’𝘵 𝘣𝘦 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥 𝘰𝘳 𝘥𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘸𝘢𝘺… 𝘐𝘵’𝘴 𝘢 𝘸𝘢𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘴𝘦𝘦𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴, 𝘢 𝘸𝘢𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘣𝘦𝘪𝘯𝘨…”