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The Art of Travel

The Art of Travel Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Alain De Botton's The Art of Travel. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Alain De Botton

Swiss-born British essayist Alain de Botton is best known for his efforts to bring philosophy to a broader audience. His books engage the intersection between great European thinkers and the problems of work, love, and leisure that dominate contemporary people’s everyday lives—in his words, de Botton wants to offer “a philosophy of everyday life” that aims to “bring elite culture into the wider culture.” He moved to England at a young age and attended boarding school in Oxford before studying History at Cambridge University and Philosophy at King’s College in London. He quit his PhD program in Philosophy at Harvard to write for a popular audience and has since published 15 books of both fiction and nonfiction. His essays cover a wide variety of topics, but particularly emphasize love and relationships. He has also founded the School of Life, an international organization that seeks to teach emotional intelligence through nontraditional classes, therapy sessions, and a video series on YouTube. De Botton’s work has polarized critics since he first published the novel Essays in Love in 1993. Many have considered his books important efforts to connect the public with the world of academic philosophy, which delves deeply into essential questions about human existence and happiness but remains too esoteric and complex for a general audience. Many philosophers, however, have criticized de Botton’s work as pompous and condescending, prone to stating the obvious and bastardizing central figures of the Western literary and philosophical canon by oversimplifying their work in an attempt to convince a reader whose intelligence he underestimates. Nevertheless, De Botton claims to write for the “bright but impatient” reader and remains critical of the academic establishment, which he believes betrays the philosophers and writers it studies by treating them as incorruptible idols from the past rather than valuable sources of information about how to live better in the present.
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Historical Context of The Art of Travel

Although The Art of Travel focuses largely on de Botton’s 21st-century travels, it also covers those of famous literary white men throughout history. In this vein, Europe’s relationship to the rest of the world from the 16th through 20th centuries is an essential undercurrent to de Botton’s writing, for some of the figures he cites—including French writer Gustave Flaubert, who visits Egypt to experience the mystical “Orient” about which he has always dreamed, and German polymath Alexander von Humboldt, who ventured to South America to study its plants, animals, people, geology, and more—traveled as part of colonial expeditions to the global periphery. The unequal power dynamic of colonizer to colonized (whether in the present or past) is thus inextricable from these travels. British poet William Wordsworth and Irish philosopher Edmund Burke were both interested in how people could sustain connections to nature as more and more Europeans moved to cities. Finally, the painter Edward Hopper, who de Botton writes about, was largely motivated by the early 20th-century advent of transportation infrastructure on a mass scale in the United States.

Other Books Related to The Art of Travel

Alain de Botton has written on the relationship between happiness and architecture (The Architecture of Happiness), work (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work), art (Art as Therapy), and the judgment of others (Status Anxiety). His two most famous books of essays are How Proust Can Change Your Life (which combines an autobiography of the eponymous writer, a literary analysis of Proust’s famous Remembrance of Things Past, and de Botton’s signature variety of scrupulous self-help), and The Consolations of Philosophy (which suggests how philosophers from the European tradition might help contemporary people better deal with their frustrations and inadequacies). He has also written widely on love, from his first book, the philosophical novel Essays in Love, to books like How to Think More About Sex, The Course of Love, Kiss and Tell, and The Romantic Movement. Works cited in The Art of Travel include J.K. Huysman’s influential À rebours, whose protagonist plays a central role in de Botton’s first chapter; Gustave Flaubert’s satirical Dictionary of Received Ideas, which lampooned the French aristocracy’s snobbishness; the body of William Wordsworth’s Romantic poetry; Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful; the English critic John Ruskin’s wide range of writings on art history and drawing; and Xavier de Maistre’s notorious Journey Around My Bedroom. In collaboration with the technology company Airbnb, de Botton also republished this book as The New Art of Travel in 2015.
Key Facts about The Art of Travel
  • Full Title: The Art of Travel
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 2002
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Nonfiction
  • Genre: Essays, Philosophy, Self-Help, Travel Writing
  • Setting: Various: London, Barbados, Amsterdam, Egypt, Madrid, South America, the English Lake District, the Sinai Desert, Provence, Airports, Trains, Hotels, Rest Stops
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for The Art of Travel

Family Complications. Alain de Botton’s father, the Egyptian-born multimillionaire financier Gilbert de Botton, donated heavily to the arts and dabbled in philosophy himself (he was particularly fond of the 16th-century French aristocrat and essayist Michel de Montaigne), although he remained critical of his son’s career choice even after Alain achieved widespread literary success. De Botton has accused his father of being emotionally distant and violent throughout his childhood, and he has even suggested that many of his books are motivated by an attempt to make up for this early lack of love. Famously, his father also left a trust fund of at least £50 million, although the author claims he cannot access the money and would never think of dipping into it.