Not a Travel Guide but a Guide on Travelling

Are any of your New Year’s resolutions connected to travelling? Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel is a treatise on an everlasting contemporary phenomenon: the desire to travel, the longing to escape the boredom and lethargy of everyday life. Jana Wiggenhauser reviews de Botton’s novel for the Literary Field Kaleidoscope. 

book cover of The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

photo: Jana Wiggenhauser

Journeys have long been depicted as the mid-wives of life-enhancing thoughts where nostalgic ideas of adventure and beauty unravel. We are thus prone to set sail for happiness.

After deciding against finishing his PhD in philosophy, the Swiss-British writer, philosopher and TV presenter Alain de Botton (*1969) wrote his first novel Essays in Love (1993), its sequel The Course of Love was published this year. In his bestselling non-fiction works, How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) or The Architecture of Happiness (2006), de Botton reflects on how philosophy and the arts can enhance our lives. The Art of Travel is yet another stopover in the author’s quest to understand what constitutes meaning, beauty and happiness in life.

De Botton’s book is a philosophical travel guide. Starting from the stage of departure, it leads us through the motives for travelling, the beauty of landscapes and architecture and to our final return to the habit of home. In each chapter, writers, artists or thinkers serve as our travel guides. In “On the Exotic” Gustave Flaubert accompanies us through the “exoticism of chaos” of an Egyptian bazaar. In “On Travelling Places”, Edward Hopper’s paintings illuminate the atmosphere of the liminal locale of service stations.

De Botton also shares anecdotes of his own travel experiences. Leaving his home in London, he precisely depicts the view from an airplane window, a description which is then followed by a poem as well as by black and white photos of clouds stretching over the book pages. This intermediality is particularly enriching since de Bottom’s talent of portraying situations and places in such an aesthetically-pleasing manner already establishes a vivid image in the reader’s mind.

The Art of Travel advocates the role of art in opening one’s eyes to the beauty of the world. Having just arrived in France, the author examines the scenery:

“I scanned the view. I was not looking for anything in particular: not for predators, holiday homes or memories. My motive was simple and hedonistic: I was looking for beauty. ‘Delight and enliven me’ was my implicit challenge to the olive trees, cypresses and the skies of Provence.”

Eventually, de Botton turns to Van Gogh’s Provence paintings in order to fully grasp the beauty of his surroundings. The Art of Travel invites readers to explore the relationship between the desire to travel and the arts. It comments on the aspects of the traveling experience which are emphasized, simplified or idealized in artistic or literary works – a selection process which ultimately creates anticipations and expectations in armchair travellers.

For those readers with no prior knowledge of French artists or Romantic poets, the lives and ideas are introduced in an easy-to-access way – just like getting to know the protagonist of a novel. The pairing of artistic concepts with de Botton’s personal travel stories remains captivating even for those who are more familiar with the works of famous artists. For example, in an amusing chapter, Alexander von Humboldt’s enthusiastic expedition through South America is contrasted with author’s lack of interest in exploring Madrid – secretly wishing to remain in bed and to fly home.

De Botton’s book is neither a highly challenging philosophical work nor an in-depth academic study on the lives and ideas of artists. Rather, it is a light and entertaining travel companion. I was reading the chapter on William Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’ in the sublime nature of the Lake District while trapped in a traffic jam on the German Autobahn on a hot August day. Both lanes were blocked for several hours, which brought traffic to a grinding halt. During this time, people left their vehicles and leaned against car doors or even crash barriers. I experienced this ‘spot of time’ as rather pleasant and tried to internalize the basic message of the book: practicing the art of looking, pausing and appreciating. I observed children excitedly running, parents meditatively smoking and wind turbines steadily moving in front of a cloudless sky. Reading The Art of Travel had heightened my aesthetic receptivity and inspired me to let my thoughts wander – creating a peaceful moment of standstill.


Alain de Botton: The Art of Travel
first published in 2002
reissued in Penguin Books in 2014

Reviewed by Jana Wiggenhauser


Jana Wiggenhauser is a Master student in British Studies at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She specialises in Culture and Literature and is writing her thesis on migration and refugee studies. Jana is a passionate traveller particularly interested in discovering hidden places and the stories local people have to offer.