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The Art of Travel

By Alain De Botton
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The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton

The Art of Travel (2002) is an unorthodox guide to traveling. Unlike conventional travel guides, Alain de Botton’s book is more of a philosophical globe-trotter’s handbook, exploring the reasons behind our urge to discover new places and offering some general tips for making travel more enjoyable.

Key idea 1 of 9

Dreams of travel are often quite different from actual trips, in part because you can't travel away from yourself.

Human life is often one long quest for happiness, and the means to this often elusive end are myriad. Some turn to money; others, to love. Still others seek happiness and meaning in travel.

But the reality of travel often has little in common with the vague fantasies that first inspire one to hit the road, a disparity that’s nicely captured in A Rebours, a French novel written by Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1884.

The book’s protagonist, the Duke of Esseintes, is a recluse and a misanthrope; he despises the society of his local village and spends his days holed up in his room, reading classic literature.

But his reading inspires him to reenter the world. The duke reads Charles Dickens, whose vivid descriptions of foggy London fill him with a longing to see the famous city. Soon, he packs his bags and sets forth.

While still in Paris, to kill time before his train leaves for the first leg of the trip to London, the protagonist enters an English bookstore and purchases a London guidebook. Still full of his London enthusiasm, he then goes to an English tavern, teeming with swarthy British maids and smelling of beer and meat.  

But all this premature Britishness takes the wind out of the duke’s sails. When the time comes to board the train to London, he is utterly worn out. So, instead of facing the inconveniences of train travel – dashing to the station, finding a porter, sleeping in a compartment, standing in lines – he returns home, never to embark on another journey again for the rest of his days.

The disappointments of travel certainly aren’t limited to fiction, and they affect people in the twenty-first century as much as they did those in the nineteenth.

For starters, travel isn’t the best way to escape from your problems, because wherever you go – well, there you’ll be.

The author once went to Barbados. He’d been looking forward to an escape from his day-to-day routine, some time to relax and release. But when he got there, he couldn’t simply relax and enjoy the gorgeous scenery or the scrumptious fresh fruit; rather, he felt melancholic and anxious, just as he had back home in London.

Actual travel is usually far less glamorous than the dreams one has of it. But traveling still has a world of wonders to reveal – it’s just about adjusting our modern approach to it.

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