By Alain de Botton
When renowned writer and philosopher Alain de Botton penned a new book called ‘A week in the airport’, many travel enthusiasts were no doubt looking forward to an entertaining read about the many things that happen beneath the surface in a thriving airport.
de Botton has previously written fascinating books on big subjects like travel, work, anxiety and love, challenging established ideas for instance of movement, escapism and travelling.
Unfortunately the new book, ‘A week in the airport’ disappoints on the philosophical skill and literary style that we have come to expect from de Botton, but if you are forced to spend extended time in an airport against your will, you might probably find it worthwhile to kill time with.
‘A week at the airport‘ was commissioned by the people behind Heathrow’s new Terminal Five, who asked de Botton to stay for a week in their new terminal, act as a ‘writer in residence’ with his own desk at the airport, sleep in the terminal hotels, eat in the restaurants, and generally hang out and do anything but travel.
This seems to be causing a normally fluid mind to stagnate, and both philosophical thought processes as well as language appear forced and stale. The book is structured in four chapters based on the airport (Approach, Departures, Airside, Arrivals), and peeks at people and processes that go on in an airport, accompanied by plenty of (rather boring) photographs.
It’s all very straight forward, and generally a bit dull. There are goodbyes and hellos. There are people who work at night, cleaning and preparing food. We meet people who may or may not be made up. de Botton is fascinated by meals that fly and people who arrive in a completely different place than they started, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he is in fact in an airport.
For the reader, there are no surprises, and it is all presented in a very stylistically amateurish past, which is reminiscent of bad wedding speeches, especially when he tries to move into thought experiments (“I was reminded of the Roman philosopher Seneca’s treatise…”).
There are a few good bits, the middle is a lot better than the beginning and end; there are some interesting observations and a couple of fragments on culture, security and shopping which are very enjoyable, and reading in the airport gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast, which undoubtedly is a bit of fun.
The main problems with this current book from an otherwise fairly brilliant writer, however, lie in the language and lack of consistent narration, with the lack of an underlying principle to drive the thought processes, and with a structure that is unable to carry the book further.
What we end up with is a fragmented piece of random notes on airport life, a dull ad for Terminal Five, without a conclusion or even a clear objective beyond ‘I was paid to write this, so I did’.
I’d rather recommend spending your time watching ‘The Terminal’ with Tom Hanks, which also gives a half entertaining view of life in an airport, or even better, reading Alain de Botton’s other works, especially the excellent ‘Art of Travel‘.
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