The Art of Travel (by Air)


My brother recommended I read The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, but I was skeptical. A whole book about getting from one place to another? 255 pages of the philosophical musings of a Swiss-British journeyman writer? Really?!? With some extra time on my hands over the holidays, however, I checked out a copy from the local library and started reading. In the process, I gained fresh faith in my brother’s recommendations. The book is fascinating. It puts focused words to the scattered thoughts I’ve had a thousand times, as I’ve traveled from one place to the next.

I especially resonated with de Botton’s reflections on airports and airplanes, and I remembered conversations I’ve had with my close friends who tend to become especially anxious when it comes to air travel. I know that airplanes and airports can become wearisome. That notwithstanding, de Botton brilliantly captures much of what I love about air travel in the fourth section of his second chapter, “On Travelling Places.”

Baudelaire admired not only the places of departure and arrival but also the machines of motion… A great ship made him think of ‘a vast, immense, complicated but agile creature, an animal full of spirit, suffering and heaving all the sighs and ambitions of humanity.’

We may feel similar sentiments upon looking at some of the larger species of aeroplanes, themselves ‘vast’ and ‘complicated’ creatures, which defy their size and the chaos of the lower atmosphere to steer serenely across the firmament…

After describing the take-off, which he describes as a great release and pleasure, de Botton reflects upon the view out the window:

The new vantage point lends order and logic to the landscape: roads curved to avoid hills, rivers trace paths to lakes, pylons lead from power stations to towns, streets that from the earth seemed laid out without thought emerge as well-planned grids. The eye attempts to match what it can see with what the mind knows should be there, like a reader trying to decipher a familiar book in a new language. Those lights must be Newbury, that road the A33 as it leaves the M4. And to think that all along, hidden from our sight our lives were that small: the world we live in but almost never see, the way we must appear to the hawk and to the gods.

The plane’s engines show none of the effort required to take us to this place. They hand there in the inconceivable cold, patiently and invisibly powering the craft… In the cabin, 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, a matter that would have detained Leonardo and Poussin, Claude and Constable…

The clouds usher in tranquility. Below us are enemies and colleagues, the sites of our terrors and our griefs, all of them now infinitesimal, mere scratches on the earth…

You’d probably have to read the full text to get the full feeling, but I find this book provides a valuable perspective on traveling. Not just the wonder of it, but the travails. Not just the new things we experience along the way, but the persistent parts of our past that we bring along with us. Not just the glossy postcard images, but the grit that holds it all together. For anyone who’s ever traveled — or who hopes to travel — I would encourage a reading of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel.

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