The Saturday Read – Alain de Botton ‘The Art of Travel’

This week’s ‘Saturday Read’ is ‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton. It’s not your typical travel guide, although scenes are set in a variety of global locations. We join the author as he navigates the world, his neighborhood and his room. We are accompanied on the journey by artists, explorers, poets and novelists: Wordsworth in The Lake District, Vincent van Gogh in Provence and Alexander von Humboldt in South America.

This wonderful book should be read in small bites, a tapas menu to savor, in advance of any journey you may have planned. It’s a philosophical view of travel and requires us to reflect through the lens of our fellow pilgrims before we rush on to the next chapter.

The book is segmented into four sections: departure, motives, art and return. In each the author is puzzling through why expectations of travel don’t quite live up to promise. We begin to examine our relationship to the distant and familiar as we eavesdrop on Mr. de Botton’s thoughts as he considers his relationship to place.

Early on, he realizes:

“A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

Place has the potential to transform us, but our fundamental self remains our companion and colors our experience.

“What, then, is a traveling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting.

Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.”

How we respond to place is limited by the resources we utilize in our process of discovery. Travel companions share critiques and travel guides list the top ten things to see. Our expectations are set through the eyes of others who have gone before.

“Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others.”

On a visit to Madrid, the author ventures from his hotel:

“It was a sunny day, and crowds of tourists were stopping to take photographs and listen to guides. And I wondered, with mounting anxiety, What am I supposed to do here? What am I supposed to think?”

“Where guidebooks praised a site, they pressured a visitor to match their authoritative enthusiasm, and where they were silent, pleasure or interest seemed unwarranted.”

“..if my compass of curiosity had been allowed to settle according to its own logic, rather than being swayed by the unexpectedly powerful force field of a small green object by the name of The Michelin Street Guide to Madrid…”

We travel for different reasons. ‘The Art of Travel’ encourages us to trust our ‘compass of curiosity’ and discover our own wonders of the world.

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