In The Art of Travel, essayist Alain de Botton reflects on the philosophical dimensions of travel: he sees travel as a reflection of the human search for happiness and wonders how and why people should travel, not merely where. To this end, in each of the book’s nine essays, de Botton juxtaposes his own travels with those of canonical Western artists and writers (all are European men from the 18th and 19th centuries, besides one 20th century American man, painter Edward Hopper). De Botton argues that travel teaches people about their own character, values, and potential by exposing them to places that they may discover they prefer to home, landscapes and art that teach them about beauty and humanity’s limited perspective, and a travel mind-set that allows them to find a sense of wonder in the places where they already live.
In his first essay, “On Anticipation,” de Botton explains why travel so often disappoints: people tend to expect serenity and continuous joy on their vacations, which they conceive as breaks from their everyday lives, but then become surprised to discover that they only find moments of happiness and cannot let go of their everyday problems. De Botton recalls his own vacation to sunny Barbados, inspired by a brochure that promised palm trees and sea while he was caught up in the dreary London winter. When he arrived, de Botton quickly tired of the beach and got into an argument with his girlfriend M., which made him realize that travel cannot offer people aesthetic or material joy until they first meet their basic psychological needs. He compares his trip to that of the Duc des Esseintes, the protagonist of J.K. Huysman’s novel À Rebours, who becomes enamored with the idea of visiting London after reading Dickens but decides to turn back once he reaches the train station. Whereas des Esseintes came to believe that travel was better in the imagination than in reality, which he thought diluted places’ distinctive qualities with ordinary images, de Botton insists that travel can differ from people’s expectations without being a failure.
De Botton’s next essay, “On Traveling Places,” expounds the virtues of the airport, service station, shipyard, motel, and train car, in conversation with French poet Charles Baudelaire and American painter Edward Hopper. De Botton finds a poetic loneliness in a fluorescently-lit roadside restaurant and a promise of happiness in watching planes take off and land at London’s Heathrow airport. He remembers Baudelaire’s ambivalence toward travel—the poet cut short a trip to India when he found that the voyage did not heal his depression, but he continued dreaming about traveling “anywhere! anywhere!” and waiting at the docks to watch ships “set sail for happiness.” Baudelaire believed that “poets” who could not find satisfaction in conventional society were destined to travel in search of something better, and de Botton sees Edward Hopper’s paintings of pensive, lonely characters in American traveling places as odes to such poetic wanderers.
In “On the Exotic,” de Botton recounts the French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s obsession with the Middle East (or, as 19th-century Europeans called it, “the Orient”) and compares Flaubert’s ecstasy at visiting Egypt to his own intense pleasure at the cultural differences between Amsterdam and London. From the peculiarities of Dutch vowels to the narrow brick houses that prioritize order over ornamentation, de Botton comes to feel more at home in Dutch culture than his own, just as Flaubert comes to adore the chaos and irreverence he sees in Egypt. In finding the foreign exotic, de Botton argues, a traveler can learn about their own aesthetic sensibilities and discover how these elements of the exotic can contribute to their own personal fulfillment.
The fourth essay explores curiosity—namely, the German polymath Alexander von Humboldt’s abundance of it during his scientific expedition to South America at the turn of the 19th century, which contrasts with de Botton’s utter lack of it during a trip to Madrid that he immediately and profoundly regrets. Once he drags himself out of bed, de Botton cannot bring himself to appreciate the glut of dates and measurements his tourist guidebook throws at him, and he finds its insistence on ranking tourist attractions by their historical importance particularly distasteful. Whereas Humboldt insisted on studying everything he could get his hands (and scientific instruments) on in South America, de Botton says that there is little left for travelers to discover in the 21st century. Using German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s distinction between collecting new facts in a “quasi-scientific” way and learning existing facts for the sake of personal enrichment, de Botton argues that tourism can only be meaningful for travelers if it helps them connect their experience to the deeper questions that lie at the core of human existence.
In “On the Country and the City,” de Botton retraces the famed poet William Wordsworth’s path through the English Lake District. Wordsworth insisted that people from the city could overcome many of their anxieties and learn to act more virtuously if they experienced nature in a mindful and reflective way. As the 18th-century English literary community increasingly accepted Wordsworth’s ideas, the public began to flood from cities into the countryside. De Botton follows them to the Lake District, where he starts to notice trees, animals, and landscapes in more detail and even imagine their perspectives on the world. He learns to hold onto memories of moments in nature, which Wordsworth called “spots of time,” as a therapeutic stress-relief tool when he returns to his life in London.
In his sixth essay, De Botton loses himself in the Sinai Desert as he reads Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s treatise on the beautiful and the sublime. Burke argues that vast and overwhelming landscapes like the Sinai can remind people of their insignificance before nature’s infinite power. In fact, de Botton suggests that such a feeling may inspire belief in God, and he recalls the Book of Job from the Old Testament, in which God tells the inauspicious Job that he “cannot fathom” the universe’s logic by pointing to the sheer enormity and force of nature. By experiencing the sublime, de Botton concludes, people can learn to accept the limits of their will and become more humble before the world.
In the next essay, de Botton takes up the relationship between art and travel by tracing landmark Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh’s path through Provence in southern France. While de Botton initially cannot understand why so many travelers consider Provence uniquely beautiful, after studying van Gogh’s life and works he begins to notice the region’s particularly favorable weather and healthy plant life, which together produce the richly-colored landscapes that van Gogh’s work so famously depicted. While van Gogh broke with artistic tradition by focusing on color and motion over line and form, de Botton argues that the Dutch painter did not reject realism (the notion that art should accurately reflect what an observer sees) but rather focused on realistically portraying the psychological effect of being in Provence. De Botton thinks that all artists must make choices about what to include and hide in their work, and van Gogh shows him how these choices can influence how artists’ audiences see the world in new ways and direct their attention when they travel.
In his penultimate essay, de Botton asks how travelers might move from appreciating the beauty of places they visit and sights they see to truly understanding and “possessing” that beauty. Following the 19th-century art educator John Ruskin, who spent much of his life giving drawing lessons to working-class English people, de Botton explains how travelers can learn to “notice rather than merely look” by drawing a place, as opposed to merely photographing or passing through it. De Botton tries his hand at drawing a window and a tree, affirming that he begins to see the details that make them beautiful to him and understand the aesthetic principles that shape his perception of beauty more fundamentally.
In his closing essay, “On Habit,” de Botton asks how people might bring the mind-set of travel back home. Summarizing the French writer Xavier de Maistre’s pajama-clad Journey around My Bedroom, de Botton suggests that people can discover novelty and beauty where they already live by learning to pay attention to their environments and explore without the frantic sense of purpose that they often carry in everyday life. This mind-set, de Botton concludes, is travel’s ultimate gift to those who choose to undertake it: it enriches life because it helps people become receptive to their environments and humble before what is novel, beautiful, and surprising in the world.