Book Club
Tales of the City
Urban Design


The Art of Travel - Alain de Botton
Russell Degnan

Ostensibly, The Art of Travel is a book about why people travel: to escape their rut, or the city, for the exotic, the sublime, or the merely mundane, curiosity or just because everyone else has. In doing so, de Botton introduces us to the lives of history's more interesting and sometimes eccentric travellers, discussing their motives, their advice, and how to apply it to your own journeys.

But beyond that it is also something much more.

de Botton examines the relationship of our intellect to the world around us. When travelling, we often let our mind race ahead of where we are. We don't see the scene, or feel the experience available to us, but instead, that given to us by a guidebook, or a travel brochure, a friend, or in some piece of art. While discussing a short trip to Madrid de Botton summed this problem up:

A danger of travel is that we see things a the wrong time, before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity and when new information is therefore as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain.

The difference, between the average traveller, and the great travellers - the writers, poets and artists who subsequently shape our experiences on our own travels - is the intellectual connection they take to the places they travelled. Flaubert to the exoticism of Egypt, Humboldt to the scientific curiosities of South America, Wordsworth to English country life, or van Gogh to the colours of Provence.

This is the advantage of travel. It allows you to expand your mind and escape the mundanity of everyday existence. As de Botton says:

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.

The intellectual connection that we can find travelling is not exclusive to travel though. In the last chapter, de Botton challenges us to be more receptive to our natural surroundings, to have the travelling mindset.

We approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting. We irritate locals because we stand on traffic islands and in narrow streets and admire what they take to be small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or a hairdressers's unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.

The last point - on photography - is interesting. It is amazing how receptive you can be to your surrounds when you have a camera with you always; where each and every laneway, street, or play of light across a building is a potential picture.

But this also tells us something as planners, that the cities we live in must be designed to be appreciated by the traveller. Not pandering to them, with excessive signage, and a few landmarks surrounded by acres of bus parking; but the streets, parks, and public transport should be a pleasant, interesting, dynamic experience. To engage the intellect of the citizens who live there, as well as those who visit.

Book Club 22nd February, 2004 17:32:04   [#] 


This is true
I read about de Botton's book in the Financial Review "Friday Review" section (my favorite bit, because it is often esoteric. The critic was quite harsh, but your comments are great.

When I first moved to Sydney, I was taking photos of everything - thought the smallest things were fascinating. Now I am reliving that excitement taking visitors around, showing them things I now consider par for the course.

When I travel, I often have images in my mind from films and they influence my experience. I am looking forward to going back to Paris in their summer to have the "Amelie" experience.

I'd like to visit American universities too and have the "Wonder Boys," "Good Will Hunting" experience too.
BridgeGirl  23rd February, 2004 16:45:32  


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