This is a republishing of a quarterly column I write for the “Newsletter of the American College of Mohs Surgeons.”
THE OCCASIONAL READER
Review of “The Art of Travel” and “Better Than Fiction”
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page —St Augustine
I love French food and never, unless forced by my grandchildren, eat at McDonalds. So why, on a trip to France, did I and my fellow American companions run—not walk—toward the “golden arches” outside the Versailles palace? And why do I laugh at travelers who see the sights peering through their I-phones yet insist upon having my picture taken next to the Eiffel Tower? Why do I long to stroll for hours in the Uffizi Palace while my colleague’s heart’s desire is to slog through rural Myanmar?
When I ask physicians about their hopes for retirement they express a near visceral wish to “travel more.” However, like me, my fellow physician-travelers can produce a personal wish list of destinations yet rarely consider the whys of travel.
If we are honest, on those days filled with yet another government form, or difficult patient (our teenager?), or a “less than perfect result” we hallucinate the dream: we simply walk away, then speed off in our car, and without consulting a map go “where the wind will take us.”
The romantic notion that an educated or civilized or hip person needs to “get away” and “see the world” no doubt accounts for the popularity of T.V. Series like Charles Karult’s “On the Road” or the foodie favorite, “Road Trip with Chef Gerry Garvin.” The number of travel books promoting the travel myth is staggering; from the poetry of Jack Kerouac to William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways or even the Iliad and Odyssey, there is no end of people telling you where to go. But these books are the obvious sources for your traveling interests. What follows are two less well-known books peering beyond the where of travel to consider why and how we travel.
“The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton is an uniquely constructed travel book that explores why we leave our comfortable homes, known world, and good friends in order to explore the world’s often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous nooks and crannies.
De Botton, a Swiss born and Cambridge educated author with degrees in philosophy, history, and literature, has previously written best selling books concerning such divergent topics as love, Marcel Proust, and philosophy’s pleasures. In The Art of Travel the author uses an unusual essay form: each chapter combines the thought and work from one or two famous writers or artists with specific places in the service of explicating a specific aspect of travel. De Botton combines keen observation and humor to discuss our fickle anticipation of travel, our surprising motives, and our need for a robust curiosity. In the process he tells the reader much worth considering about art, the pursuit of the sublime; the development of observation skills; and unexpectedly, the art of coming home.
De Botton weaves his own travel experience with the kind of self-interrogation found in all good memoir writing. The reader becomes, with the author, a companion on a journey; a journey in which the only advice offered has been earned.
The author analyzes thinkers and artists who might not, at first glance, seem “travel commentators.” (For instance, one chapter quotes Job, Wordsworth, Nietzsche, and Van Gogh) However, de Botton’s elegant but clear prose provides pleasant reading that is not at all esoteric. Be forewarned, he asks some uncomfortable questions; the author’s close and careful observations caused me many “thoughtful” moments. Take for instance his personal recollection that serves as a warning to couples using travel to avoid dealing with relational difficulties:
“. . .we ignore at our peril when we encounter a picture of a beautiful land and imagine that happiness must naturally accompany such magnificence. Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect. Thus we will not enjoy—we are not able to enjoy—sumptuous tropical gardens and attractive wooden beach huts when a relationship to which we are committed abruptly reveals itself to be suffused with incomprehension and resentment.” (P. 25)
The Art of Travel is a travel book sui generis and well worth reading by every traveler.
However, if de Botton’s innovative but analytical essay approach doesn’t float your reading boat, then this anthology of travel vignettes—”Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales From Great Fiction Writers” edited by Don George—should do the trick. These authors are master fiction writers who excel at descriptive detail and the story telling “art.” Charged by the editor with describing their most memorable travel moment, these author’ non-fiction efforts do not disappoint; these stories are not ordinary narratives.
Isabelle Allende describes the heart wrenching experience when offered a young girl to “take home” simply because females weren’t wanted in that country. Scottish author of The No 1 Woman’s Detective Agency Alexander McCall Smith describes traveling to Buenos Aires—a place he believes the most open to the writings of Sigmund Freud— to interview two Freudian psychoanalysts. What starts as mild writer’s curiosity becomes a process leading to better understanding of his own previously “suppressed” travel agendas.
The volume collects 32 different short vignettes. None of these “flash non-fiction” pieces is more than five or six pages, but this is good thing. I found the requirement for brevity forced a prose clarity that produced vivid images. This unique volume is published by Lonely Planet Publications and would be an ideal book to read while traveling; a collection of stories providing insight as well as much hard-earned travel wisdom, and if that weren’t enough, some of the best prose you will find anywhere.
Safe travels and good reading.
The season of Advent is traditionally a time of anticipation and waiting. With joyous exhortation or monotone chanting or agonized mummers, two centuries of Christ followers have prepared for Christmas by praying, Come Lord Jesus, Come. This prayer, uttered with varying amounts of confidence and desperation, actually speaks of two comings.
Advent surely looks back to the time God entered time, a moment in history when the Creator of the universe became a bloody babe borne in pain to a poor unmarried Jewish woman. When we utter, “Come Lord Jesus,” we remind ourselves the bright lights and outlandish materialism have little to do with the Incarnated Christ’s birth. Rather, His birth and death and resurrection are His gracious gifts to us—God’s triumph over evil and death.
But Advent also looks forward to His coming again, a second entry into time that signals time’s end. Living as we do between these comings, we are forced to imagine a future when, “the lion and the lamb lay down together in peace” because our present world cannot be mistaken for this promised future.
As I write these words it is two days after the Sandy Hook, Conn shootings. I’m struggling to lean into Advent, to hear again the hope of both comings while my mind remains filled by the horror of slaughtered innocents. I cannot fathom how or what to pray for those Connecticut parents. What possible comfort, God-given or otherwise, could salve these families whose tears drench the cold earth and who listen in vain for children’s voices lost in swirling silence.
Reflecting on unspeakable suffering, Elie Weisel said, “Words, they die on our lips.” I’m mute. I lack the words or ideas or arguments that explain any relationship between the creator God and this “in-between world” so full of injustice and hate. I have no answers for these “Why” questions.
Yet, it was into such a harsh world that Christ first came–the fulfillment of His promise to unconditionally love His creatures and creation in spite of their brokenness. It is when I look back, when I remember the first Advent, when I acknowledge in a particular place and time Emanuel came that I can find the barest spot of solid ground. And from this shaky footing I see only the faintest silhouette of hope, but a hope illumined by that single bright star. This Advent I stand in the shadows silently listening for His steps. This Advent I can only mummer, “Come Lord Jesus, Come.” Quickly.
I am sure I am not the first person to take careful notice of how many people Like my Facebook postings. And I’m not, I suspect, the only reader expending considerable angst and precious time explicating the meaning encrusted in the Like numbers after my post traversed its five minutes of fame. Judging from my modest cadre of my Facebook friends (a mere 373, but whose counting, right?) I fall into the moderate sharing group. ( No more than two or three shares a week) Because of my eclectic vocational choices, I post articles from divergent sources, often concerning esoteric issues. Why then am I surprised and worse, why does it bother me (irritate, annoy, gall, chafe, exasperate or enrage) when some of my postings fail to get even a single invitation to the Facebook prom?
Take for example my last two postings. I posted a funny picture of an infant holding a phone. The caption read: “No Grandma, I said push the Explorer Icon.” This gentle jibe at the techno-challenged stereotype of we over age thirty adults netted numerous Likes. (Perhaps Dylan was another mis-quoted prophet before his time and actually said, “Don’t trust your computer to anyone over thirty.”)
However, my post regarding the Gates Foundation’s funding of experimental toilets got a Facebook flush. This advance in sewage science has the potential to cure and prevent more disease than antibiotics. I have spent time as a physician in rural central America. We will not eradicate worms and the subsequent malnutrition or have clean water in these countries without innovations in sewage management. Can you tell that I think this is important?
But the truth is, I’m arbitrary about who and what I Like. On the good side, perusing Facebook allows a kind of electronic handshake with friends scattered around the world. Not infrequently, the articles these reliable readers share offer an insight from publications I would not otherwise see. This morning a friend shared a well-written essay from a publication I did not know existed concerning possible responses by the American Catholic Bishops to fellow Catholic Paul Ryan’s budget proposals. But I did not hit the Like button.
Although many of my Facebook friends post articles, photos, and cartoons expressing their political views, I rarely Like them. Excluding those right and left leaning ideologue friends who post stereotypic or even hate speech disguised as public policy positions, most of these political posts consider issues that are complex problems, problems whose solutions (including the one thought best) are never completely satisfactory. These essays rarely consider the downsides or unintended consequences contained in their choices. Even posts supporting issues I believe in like justice or freedom or fairness often consider only a fraction of the meanings and implications encrusted in these thick ideas but imply they have the most complete or wholly moral solution.
The Like button is an all or none thing. If I Like, does that mean that I’m glad my friend considered the issue or that I support at least some of the concepts or that the writer has been rhetorically successful or that the post has achieved some measure of fairness?
Unfortunately, the Like button is as much about me building a persona as it is with connecting people and ideas. I sometimes look at the things my friends post or Like and wonder why they choose to be so electronically provocative when in the flesh they are so much more nuanced. Perhaps it is my age, but on Facebook I find myself becoming more private—or perhaps better said—more selectively public. Given the electronic sphere’s lack of civil discourse, the paltry concern for policy complexity, and the inattention by even those who should know better to charitable language I find the Like button a sledge hammer when a fine scalpel is needed.
But perhaps the capriciousness of my friends Likes as well as my own has more to do with a far more basic need: the need to matter. A retired CEO was asked what he learned after two years sailing the Mediterranean. “I learned it is of vital importance for all of us, working or not, that our opinion matter to the people that matter to us.”
It is more narcissistic than I care to admit, but I look at who likes my posts not so much because I’m seeking new knowledge or a better argument but because I want my opinion to matter. The problem of the Like button is that it offers us no way to say, “your opinion matters even when I disagree” or “your opinion matters because of who you are as a person” or even the far more important, “you matter to me.”
My real problem with the Like button—besides reminding me of my incessant self-absorption and preoccupation with the superficial— is that although it gives an illusion of community, it separates opinions, beliefs, abilities, and emotions from the person. In a way, if my only choice is to Like or Unlike you, then I have made you and me smaller and less human.