Warning: Read These Two Books Before Travel

This is a republishing of a quarterly column I write for the “Newsletter of the American College of Mohs Surgeons.”

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.

04. April 2013 by David
Categories: Books, The Occasional Reader, Travel | Leave a comment

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