I picked up Alain de Botton’s The Art Of Travel at the recommendation of a friend. I went into the book expecting it to be a travel guide, probably a what-to-do-on-your-travels and what-not-to-do-on-your-travels kind of book. It turned out to be completely different from my expectations, though.
The Art Of Travel is, in fact, a book that delves deep into the psychology of a traveller. It explores various aspects of travelling – the anticipation of a journey, the actual journey, taking photographs and sketching on your journey, the power of natural beauty, taking in each little sight and sound and smell on your travels, et al. It is not a light read, as I was expecting, but quite a thought-provoking one. The author presents these different aspects through short essays, some about his own experiences, some about the experiences of others he has read or heard about.
I enjoyed the experience of reading this book. It made me think a lot about why I travel, what I think when I am travelling, whether I am conscious during my travels or not, whether I am doing the right thing by freezing certain places in my camera or not. I did find certain parts of the book depressing, such as the one about a man who anticipates his travel so much that he finds it less than expected when he actually embarks on his journey. That said, the book was, overall, pleasurable. I especially loved the chapters on the city vs. the country and taking in the littlest of experiences on a journey. They were so much me.
I would heartily recommend this book to travel lovers. It will make you plunge into the abyss of your mind, and make you think about the way you travel.
Some of my favourite excerpts from the book:
On being attracted to new things on our travels
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.
On the country vs. the city
The poet (Wordsworth) proposed that Nature, which he took to comprise, among other elements, birds, streams, daffodils and sheep, was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by life in the city.
On nature’s loveliness
Nature’s ‘loveliness’ might in turn, according to Wordsworth, encourage us to locate the good in ourselves. Two people standing on the edge of a rock overlooking a stream and a grand wooded valley might transform their relationship not just with nature but, as significantly, with each other.
On the ability of nature to heal you time and again
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue…
That penetrate, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen
On the subjectiveness of painting
We are apt to call any painting realistic that competently conveys key elements of the world. But the world is complex enough for two realistic pictures of the same place to look very different, depending on an artist’s style and temperament. Two realistic artists may sit at the edge of the same olive grove and produce divergent sketches.
On drawing and writing as tools to be more conscious on our travels
Ruskin did not only encourage us to draw on our travels, he also felt we should write, or as he called it ‘word paint’, so as to cement our impressions of beauty…. Attractive places typically render us aware of our inadequacies with language….We were all, he argued, able to turn out adequate word-paintings. A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analysing what we had seen and felt. Rather than rest with the idea that a lake was pretty, we were to ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations? What is a better word for it than big? The finished product might not then be marked by genius, but at least it would have been motivated by a search for an authentic representation of an experience.
On seeing our locality with new eyes
We meet people who have crossed deserts, floated on icecaps and cut their way through jungles – and yet in whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed. Dressed in pink and blue pyjamas, satisfied within the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.
On being more observant of the little things
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 by train (a service first offered by Thomas Cook in 1862): ‘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 so fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. 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.’
On losing sight of the scene due to photography
Ruskin…. observed the devilish problem that photography created for the majority of its practitioners. Rather than using photography as a supplement to active, conscious seeing, they used it as an alternative, paying less attention to the world than they had done previously from a faith that photography automatically assured them possession of it.