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Inspiration from "The Art of Travel"

To prepare for an upcoming writing retreat in France led by my friend Summer Hardinge, I decided to read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. I had heard it was wonderful, but I didn’t expect such an erudite, subtle, witty, and philosophically wide-ranging treatment of the topic. Nor did I expect to delve deeply into a traveler’s way of seeing, which really is the same as a writer’s way of seeing. For example, here's what de Botton says about curiosity:

Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood, we ask, ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until at some point we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. (p. 116)

This also relates to what he calls “the traveling mind-set," which can be applied to places both near and far:

What, then, is a traveling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate the locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or a hairdresser’s shop unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs. (p. 242)

I especially admire de Botton’s descriptive powers. Take this description (possibly my favorite sentence in the book) of the hills in England's Lake District as an example:

The hills undulated as though they formed part of the backbone of a giant beast that had lain down to sleep and might at any point awake and stand up several miles high, shaking off oak trees and hedgerows like pieces of fluff caught on its green felt jacket. (p. 214)

There is hope for those of us who read this sentence and think, "I could never write like that!" To this attitude, he offers up John Ruskin:

Attractive places typically render us aware of our inadequacies in the area of language. In the Lake District, for example, writing a postcard to a friend, I explained—in some despair and haste—that the scenery was pretty and the weather wet and windy. Ruskin would have ascribed such prose more to laziness than incapacity. We are all, he argued, able to turn out adequate word paintings; our failure to do so is the result merely of our not asking ourselves enough questions and not being precise enough in analysing what we have seen and felt. Rather than rest with the idea that a lake is pretty, we must ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations? What might be a better word for it than big?’ The finished product may not be marked by genius, but at least it will have been motivated by a search for an authentic representation of an experience. (p. 227)

Curiosity, receptivity, humility, admiration, precision—all tools of the writer’s craft, and on full display in this gem of a book.

What book has inspired you lately?

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