When I first discovered Alain de Botton’s work several years ago, my initial thought was, “Well, I’m going to have a lot of free time on my hands now, because this man is already writing the exact books I would like to write myself. Maybe I will take up cooking.”
Today, I am baking and sautéing more than ever, and Alain de Botton is still one of my favorite living authors. His ornate, insightful style of personal philosophical writing takes the reader on a pleasure cruise through the English language to gaze upon a sparkling reflecting pool of clever ideas.
His latest book, released in September, is A Week at the Airport. The bizarre idea behind this work is that Alain de Botton would become London’s Heathrow Airport’s first “writer-in-residence,” stationed for an entire week in the new Terminal 5, observing passengers and talking with staff from shoe-shiners to security guards. His observations run the full gamut of the airport experience (he is no PR mouthpiece for Heathrow, as the premise of this book almost hints), from the uncomfortable (awakening at 5:30 am to the sound of descending planes), to the vast (the pure scale of Terminal 5, coupled with the diversity of humanity to walk its corridors), to the materialistic (the reverence for the executive lounge, which reeks of a caste system to me), to the inspiring (groups holding handmade signs to welcome back loved ones from far away).
Let me start by saying, on a purely aesthetic note, that De Botton’s books are always graphically interesting and stylistically ahead of the black-and-white pack. A Week at the Airport is chalked full of photographs by Richard Baker; strange photos that capture brief glimpses of employees preparing food or passengers sorting through their luggage, or, more expectedly, beautiful shots of planes descending from a cloud-filled sky or the impressive Terminal 5 architecture at night. Even the cover is made of some sort of plastic-y/paper wonder, and running your hands across it is a tactile experience to still the mind. Actually, I am probably only noting this because the content of A Week at the Airport has encouraged me to notice all that I might otherwise ignore.
Photograph © Richard Baker
De Botton is capable of analyzing the aspects of human society too often taken for granted in a way that forces us to question everything about how we choose to live on this earth, from travel to architecture to lovemaking. He almost reminds me of an optimistic Kurt Vonnegut in this sense: a man who thinks, “Isn’t it strange how people live,” yet still wants to get to know each and every one of them. De Botton is a Romantic sensibilities-wise, who uses his intellect in his literary execution.
When describing the architecture of Terminal 5, De Botton’s phrases could just as easily be describing how we as people want to be beautiful and elegant when faced with the heavy tasks of carrying our daily burdens. And only De Botton would cite Seneca’s philosophy as an explanation for those yelling men one always encounters at the airport. He also does a great job capturing my personal favorite aspect of the airport — the fact that it puts one in contact with so many types of strangers, all of whom have captivating life stories if one only takes the time to hear them, as De Botton does.
In an example of his ability to analyze human behavior, De Botton reminds us that travel, no matter how anticipated, will never cure our existential issues, because we always take ourselves on our vacations. He later notes that the presence of so many shops in the airport is our way of consuming in the face of death. However, this makes me wonder why we only ponder the brevity of life at an airport, one of the statistically safer places on earth, and especially why we would chose to spend our last moments shopping. De Botton poetically suggests that upon landing, we are re-burdened with all of the baggage of life we had briefly left unnoticed in the underbelly of a plane.
In the last pages of A Week at the Airport, De Botton touches upon the bittersweet, poignant nature of life as evident in the arrivals gate. Even if we know no one will be there to greet us, we may be tempted to abandon our cautious stoicism of expression for a hopeful glance around the crowd. And even if we are filled with joy today by the presence of our loved ones at the gate, mortality dictates that the day will come when such warm welcomes will no longer be possible. For De Botton, the ultimate lesson of the airport is to teach us each time we are in its borders to try not to forget what we have learned — and to not assume that happiness is elsewhere. For me, the lesson of A Week at the Airport is to hold this fleeting life dear and never squander a moment of its beauty, but always ponder its nature.
A Week at the Airport is not De Botton’s strongest work, simply because he has so many wonderful books out, but it is certainly a valuable contribution to his oeuvre. For me, the fundamental topic is not as intriguing as his other works, such as How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Architecture of Happiness (one of my favorite books of all time), or Status Anxiety. But the book still has De Botton’s magical touch of questioning human behavior and poetic use of words, which almost makes me appreciate airports, one of my more feared places due to frequent goodbyes and acrophobia.
In fact, the airport is a good topic for his style of writing, because it is the crossroads of the unusual (travel to exotic lands) and the habitual (business travelers and airport employees) in a behemoth symbolic of the power of capitalism and globalization, giving him plenty of fodder for social analysis. He even sees himself in the British Airways CEO, as both writers and those in air travel must justify themselves “in the face of humanity not so much by its bottom line as by its ability to stir the soul.”
Every day, thousands of people around the world walk mindlessly through an international airport, not giving a second thought to what they are doing or the meaning of living in a society that makes traveling across great distances commonplace, or ignoring the man in the seat next to you as you await your chance to hurtle through the sky at irrational speed and height acceptable. Alain de Botton, however, is not one of them. And I expect that the quick jaunt through A Week at the Airport will ensure that the reader is no longer one of the mindless masses either, not only at the airport, but in life. De Botton asks his reader, in the nicest possible language, to open his eyes and actually think about his habitual actions; this is De Botton’s incredibly valuable contribution to society.