Alain de Botton: I would advise a friend to travel alone

Alain de Botton
Photo by Charlotte de Botton.

Alain de Botton is a writer of essayistic books, which refer both to his own experiences and ideas — and those of artists, philosophers and thinkers. In his interview for Alain de Botton explained the fascination of travelling alone, admitted that he dreams of spaceflights and remembered his favorite souvenir.

— What are you working on now? What would be the subject of your interest after love, philosophy, travels and architecture?

— My interests may look very diverse and it’s therefore natural to ask: “What on earth decides what you write about?” But beneath the surface differences between my books, there are really two questions that keep coming back. Namely, how can we cope with what is painful? And secondly, let’s celebrate what is beautiful and good. So I’m interested as a writer in suffering and joy. Also, I am a very personal writer, so I am motivated always by what causes me suffering and joy.

I have recently finished a book called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. It is an attempt to understand the modern workplace, how strange is the place we give to work in our lives in historical terms. I spent 2 years interviewing people at work, and photographing them, and the results are hopefully fascinating. The book is published in English in March 2009 and in Russia in 2010 if I am lucky.

— Could you tell me more about “The School of Life”? Why did you decide to participate in this project? What are your expectations of it?

— I am a vulgar writer. That is, I want to write and change people in some way. I want them to see the world slightly differently. As I get older, I realise more and more that of course, people are influenced not just by the books they read.

There is a whole “climate of opinion” in societies — so someone interested in changing people’s perceptions will at some point have to become more political. My response to this new political sensibility was a collaboration with some people who are beginning a School Of Life in central London.

The idea is to challenge traditional universities and reorganise knowledge, directing it towards life, and away from knowledge for its own sake. In a modest way, it’s an institution that is trying to give people what universities should I think always give them: a sense of direction and wisdom for their lives with the help of culture.

— Your book, “Art of Travel”, is more about poetry and philosophy, than about travels itself. Why did you choose this way of storytelling?

—I like to connect my ideas always to very concrete, practical sides of people’s lives — and nowadays, people spend an awful lot of time thinking about holidays. It seemed to me that this business of going on holiday, at one level so banal, really sits on top of so many hugely interesting and important themes: the role of money in happiness, the way we remember places, the idea of the exotic, the role of literature in shaping our ideas of what is interesting…

So the result is a book that is both a treatise on art, literature, philosophy — but also, hopefully a hugely practical and even enjoyable look at the business of travelling.

— Speaking of traveling, where would you like to get to although you know it’s impossible?

— It would be fascinating to observe the earth from outer space — and therefore get a sense of the vastness in which our small affairs unfold. Back on earth, one would always be able to call on these images to lend perspective.

— What advice would you give your best friend to travel to?

— I would advise a friend to travel alone rather than always in a group. Travelling alone is totally frightening and disorienting — but from such disorientation can come valuable insights.

— Do you have a favorite souvenir from your travels?

— I remember certain images I have in my head of the Sinai desert, which I visited at the age of 18. The vastness and emptiness still effects me — and in crowded city life, I sometimes feast on these images of immemorial nature.