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Sunday, August 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Where we go — and why we go: 'The Art of Travel' examines the reasons behind the journey

Seattle Times book critic

"The Art of Travel"


by Alain de Botton
Pantheon, $23

It would be difficult to name a writer as erudite and yet as reader-friendly as British author Alain de Botton ("Kiss & Tell," "How Proust Can Change Your Life"). He seems to have read every book, studied every painting, investigated every philosophy — but he would never dream of lording his accomplishments over his readers.

Instead, with a wry, self-deprecating charm, he passes his enthusiasms along in such manner that you can't help being delighted by them. The fact that you're absorbing a syllabus's worth of information while you're at it doesn't immediately register. More striking are his humor, his pithy turns of phrase and the sense he gives you of seeing the world in an utterly fresh light.

"The Art of Travel," a book of nine linked essays contemplating our urge to get out of our ruts and go see something unfamiliar, is de Botton at his sharp-eyed best. It's the kind of book that makes you newly alert to the "choreographed dance" a docked airliner goes through as it's restocking and refueling; the kind of book that wonders if "unhappiness can stem from having only one perspective to play with."

Among the topics de Botton considers are the roles of anticipation and curiosity in travel, the lure of the exotic and the sublime, the need to seek refuge from urban angst in the countryside, and the enhancements that art (whether our own handiwork or that of an acknowledged master) can bring to our appreciation of our surroundings.

Each chapter comes with a "guide" — usually a writer or painter — who helps steer de Botton through territory as familiar as a highway service station or as alien as the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula. Some matches are what you'd expect: Wordsworth and the Lake District, Van Gogh and Provence. Others are more eccentric: French decadent poet Charles Baudelaire and American painter Edward Hopper, for instance, teaming up with the author to squire you through airports, airplanes, trains ... and that service station.

Like all de Botton's books, this one comes with illustrations — in this case, reproductions of paintings by Van Gogh, Hopper and others, and photographs taken by de Botton himself of airplanes, clouds and even his own London bedroom (this last, while making the point that "the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to").

De Botton's liveliest ideas can sometimes be studies in paradox. "We may best be able to inhabit a place," he contends in his essay on anticipation, "when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there." When, in the same essay, he gets cranky with his girlfriend while on holiday in Barbados, he blames the failure of reality to match tourist-brochure dreams of paradise on the fact that he has "inadvertently brought myself with me to this island."

A similar sly irony informs his notions of what counts as "exotic." While 19th-century Cairo, with all its differences from provincial Normandy, proved a wildly stimulating city for French novelist Gustave Flaubert, contemporary Amsterdam offers de Botton "exoticisms" of a humbler yet comparably stimulating nature — especially when he spies the double "a" in a Schiphol Airport Aankomst ("Arrivals") sign, "a repetition in which I sense, confusedly, the presence of another history and mindset."

Divining histories and mindsets from such minutiae depends on close observation, of course, and de Botton does worry about our failure to focus on where we are. On an airliner he wonders why "no one stands up to announce with requisite emphasis that if we look out the window, we will see that we are flying over a cloud." Riffing on British writer John Ruskin's belief that even the most amateurish attempt to draw what's before you will teach you to see your surroundings more vividly, de Botton laments, "It is a measure of how accustomed we are to inattention that we would be thought unusual and perhaps dangerous if we stopped and stared at a place for as long as a sketcher would require to draw it."

There are many more such tasty tangents and epiphanies in "The Art of Travel." Suffice it to say that de Botton's little treatise on how "to notice what we have already seen" makes a perfect summer read — whether you're traveling at 35,000 feet toward Tahiti or lolling in your bed at home, contemplating those phantom plaster islands on the ceiling.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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