Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Inner Lives of Airports and Voyagers

Leon Neal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“A Week at the Airport” details the time Alain de Botton spent as a sort of writer in residence at Heathrow, above.
By Dwight Garner
Published, New York Times: October 26, 2010

Alain de Botton
Illustrated. 107 pages.
Vintage International/Random House. $15.

The Experience of Travel
By Tony Hiss
339 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.

There’s a funny, revealing moment in Alain de Botton’s new book, “A Week at the Airport,” when he discovers that the largest bookstore at Heathrow Airport, in London, does not stock his books. He decides to have a conversation with Manishankar, the shop’s manager, about what else might be available.

“I explained,” Mr. de Botton writes, “that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange.”

Manishankar, confused, wonders if Mr. de Botton might want a magazine instead.
Mr. de Botton, of course, has just delivered a not bad description of his own oeuvre. From “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” the book that put him on the map in 1997, to last year’s “Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” he has consistently issued books that are intimate, fastidious and shyly geeky, books that tinker with the profound. He’s what you’d get if Linus, from “Peanuts,” grew up to read philosophy at Oxford.

That quotation is telling, too, because it underscores what’s off-putting about Mr. de Botton’s work. It can be precious, humorless and perceptively self-satisfied. His coolly inquisitive voice sometimes feels laid-on, as if its placidity were covering up more roiling emotions.

(How roiling? When the excellent critic Caleb Crain reviewed “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” negatively in The New York Times Book Review, Mr. de Botton caused a stir when he replied online: “I will hate you till the day you die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.”)

If you haven’t read Mr. de Botton’s work, “A Week in the Airport” is a good place to start. It’s a slim book, as intense as a volume of poems, and among the best things he’s done. The accompanying photographs, by Richard Baker, are haunting in their suggestiveness. This pair is a James Agee and Walker Evans for the Radiohead era.

“A Week at the Airport” details the time Mr. de Botton recently spent as a sort of writer in residence at Heathrow, at the invitation of BAA, the airport’s corporate owner. Heathrow, historically, has not been an oft celebrated place. The dramatist Dennis Potter said of it in the 1970s, “I did not fully understand the dread term ‘terminal illness’ until I saw Heathrow for myself.”

The full review of both titles at NYT.

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