Unconventional Explorations: The Whys and Hows of Travel

The Art of Travel , by Alain de Botton. Pantheon, 256 pages, $23.

In the last chapter of The Art of Travel , Alain de Botton invokes two late-18th-century works by the Frenchman Xavier de Maistre: Journey Around My Bedroom and Nocturnal Expedition Around My Bedroom . As the titles suggest, these volumes chronicle, first, de Maistre’s sightseeing expeditions to his couch and bed, then a pajama-clad visit to his window, through which he gazes at the starry sky and laments that its extraordinary beauty is too seldom appreciated in the course of daily life.

In The Art of Travel , Mr. de Botton enlivens a subject that has become nearly as familiar as our own bedrooms. Fans of this young and prolific author, whose previous books include How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel and The Consolations of Philosophy , will be unsurprised to learn that his goal has nothing in common with the standard travelogue formula, Here’s Where I Went and Here’s What I Saw. “If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness,” Mr. de Botton writes, “then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest-in all its ardor and paradoxes-than our travels …. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go.” It’s the whys and hows of travel that Mr. de Botton tackles in this series of essays, assembled in the form of a mock travel guide under headings like “On Anticipation,” “On Curiosity,” “On the Sublime.”

Mr. de Botton’s preferred method is triangulation: He goes somewhere, then summons up one or more writers or artists from the past three centuries-all of them male-to address some question posed by his trip. Wordsworth accompanies him to England’s Lake District; Baudelaire and Edward Hopper illustrate the topic of traveling spaces; Edmund Burke guides him through the Sinai Desert. In each case, Mr. de Botton eventually arrives at a synthesis, some truth about the nature of travel that often manages the tricky and desirable feat of being both familiar and surprising.

He brings his usual assemblage of talents to this enterprise: breathtaking erudition, a crisp, often beautiful prose style, and a willingness not so much to play with traditional genres as simply to ignore them.

In the first chapter, “On Anticipation,” he visits Barbados with his girlfriend, a trip he has fantasized about during the sodden onset of a London winter. His own anticipation leads him to a discussion of A Rebours , an 1884 novel by J.K. Huysmans that tells the story of a reclusive, bookish aristocrat who’s seized, while reading Dickens, by an urge to visit London. The aristocrat goes first to Paris, where he shops in an English bookstore and dines at an English tavern, only to find that by the time his train is scheduled to leave for England, his craving for London has been satisfied. “So [he] paid the bill, left the tavern and took the first train back to his villa, along with his trunks, his packages, his portmanteaux, his rugs, his umbrellas and his sticks-and never left home again.”

From the moment he arrives in Barbados, Mr. de Botton is nettled by the gap between his mental picture of the place and the reality of what he finds there. “In my anticipation, there had simply been a vacuum between the airport and my hotel,” he writes. “I had not envisioned, and now protested inwardly the appearance of, a luggage carousel with a frayed rubber mat; two flies dancing above an overflowing ashtray.” The next morning, he rises early and visits the beach, where he caps off a lush description of his surroundings with this confession: “[M]y attention was in truth far more fractured and confused than the foregoing paragraphs suggest. I may have noticed a few birds careering through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among them a sore throat I had developed during the flight, worry over not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom. A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

If you’ve traveled at all, these observations are as instantly recognizable as they are hilarious: a vivid acknowledgment of the guilt and tension that can dog us even in the pursuit of pleasure. But this opening chapter, “On Anticipation,” creates an anticipation problem of its own: Nowhere else in The Art of Travel is Mr. de Botton nearly as revealing of his intimate experience, and no subsequent chapter feels quite as funny or alive.

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty else of interest. Mr. de Botton’s account of Flaubert’s travels in Egypt is fascinating, as are his discussions of Wordsworth’s belief in the salutary powers of nature and Ruskin’s in the imperative of drawing one’s surroundings in order to truly see them. But for much of the book, Mr. de Botton’s own travels serve as little more than jumping-off points for discussions of those earlier writers and artists, and the result can feel a bit abstract. In his chapter on Ruskin and drawing, Mr. de Botton begins one section, “Another benefit we may derive from drawing is a conscious understanding of the reasons behind our attraction to certain landscapes and buildings.” All very true, but that collective “we” has a distancing effect. The most powerful moments in The Art of Travel are nearly always the ones where Mr. de Botton himself is present. For all the intelligence of his discussion of Wordsworth’s beliefs about the restorative powers of nature, I felt those powers most strongly when Mr. de Botton describes leaving a London party feeling envious and lousy; he looks up and is rescued from his funk by the sight of a cloud.

De Maistre’s volumes of room travel begin well but are finally unsuccessful, according to Mr. de Botton: “He becomes mired in long and wearing digressions about his dog, Rosinne, his sweetheart, Jenny, and his faithful servant, Joannetti. Prospective travelers in search of specific guidance on room travel risk coming away … feeling a little betrayed.” Readers of The Art of Travel , on the other hand, may come away wishing for more autobiographical digressions: The book is most irresistible when its cogitation and erudition are transformed by the alchemy of the author’s own experience.

Jennifer Egan, whose most recent novel is Look at Me (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), reviews regularly for The Observer.