Close the guidebooks and open your eyes

Times Staff Writer

Occasionally when I travel, deep, important things have occurred to me -- or at least they seemed so at the time. But because they had more to do with life in general than with the more pressing question of how to get from the airport to the city center, I forgot them.

Alain de Botton didn't forget his thoughts on trains or his feelings in empty hotel rooms. Instead, he used them in "The Art of Travel." It is a small collection of essays with a philosophical bent and the directness of a self-help book that uses wit and the elucidation of De Botton's favorite artists and writers -- Gustave Flaubert, Vincent van Gogh, William Wordsworth, Edward Hopper -- to help us understand why we travel and how we can do it better.

In the book, De Botton takes the enterprise of travel seriously, not simply as an empty recreational pursuit. "If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness," he writes, "then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest -- in all its ardor and paradoxes -- than our travels." De Botton's first chapter, for instance, explores the joys (and ultimate pains) of anticipating a trip by carefully observing the ways a visit to Barbados didn't quite live up to expectations raised by pictures in travel brochures: He got a sore throat, there were flies, he and his companion had a row.

Recognizing these annoyances helps him articulate something about travel we know but often ignore: that a trip isn't only about a white-sand beach but also about how we feel while there, and that anticipation may be one of "the finest aspects of travel" after all.

So many of the things De Botton says in "The Art of Travel" struck me as familiar and right that I called him in London, where he lives, to learn more. Here's what we talked about:

Question: As a literary form, travel writing isn't highly esteemed. Why? And what are your favorite travel books?

Answer: We tend to have a very narrow understanding of what travel writing can and should do. To me, it's any kind of writing that describes something foreign. The house next door could be foreign. [Marcel] Proust was a travel writer, though he rarely left his bedroom. He was a great describer of atmosphere and the impacts places have on us.

You could compare a travel writer to an art or literary critic. They should say something like: Here are a few good ideas to think about while looking at this place. In Madrid, it could be city planning, authoritarian architecture, the Catholic church. Travelers need hints about what to notice.

Q: How do you choose what to read on a trip?

A: Wherever you go on a trip, you can explore different themes. In Italy it could be the Italian family or Renaissance art. A book on stone would hugely increase your receptiveness to Italy.

Q: In "The Art of Travel" you suggest that guidebooks can be as much a hindrance as a help. Why?

A: You need to have guidebooks and then throw them away. They set themselves up as authority figures and have too much influence. It would be good to take a list of extremely prestigious people who didn't like the place you're visiting and longed to go home. That would release you from expectations.

Q: My brother ignores maps and guidebooks to make trips adventures. Does that make sense to you?

A: So long as you can manage to stay alive, it's a great idea. Traveling with a guidebook is like the way your eye immediately goes to the caption on a picture in a museum. And you don't look at the picture. In our culture, information is highly prized. The sensual aspects of understanding are left behind.

Q: So many things can influence the outcome of a trip that I hate it when people ask me what's my favorite place. Still, I have to ask you that.

A: Yes, it's like asking what's your favorite piece of music. But in certain places I've felt in tune -- in Paris when I was 17 or 18 and more recently in the Netherlands. Generally, I like cities more than the country.

Mostly, I remember moments from trips -- standing at a window looking over Seattle in the light of dusk -- that captured the atmosphere of the place for me. But a trip cannot be great from beginning to end. Over 50% is suffering. That's what's terrible about having such short holidays.

Q: You're Swiss but live in London and speak with a British accent. Since the war in Iraq, have you felt yourself the object of ill will when traveling?

A: Yes, you instantly become a caricature: the American, the Brit. The sensitive traveler always hates to be typecast. But you have to take it on the chin and realize it's part of the greater human tragedy of being misunderstood.

Q: Are you concerned about globalization?

A: There are two fears, really: of being somewhere so strange that you can't understand anyone and of every place becoming the same. Might one get bored everywhere? I don't think so. There's plenty left that remains mysterious enough for me, even my neighbors in London.

Q: If, as you say, 50% of travel is suffering, why bother?

A: Travel reminds us that the world isn't boring, that we're not boring. It's easy to be bored at home. We need a jolt to remind us of life's complexity. Travel reminds us why we want to be alive.

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