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The Oregonian
Thursday, December 16th, 2010
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Week At the Airport (10 Edition)

by Alain De Botton

Alain de Botton Spends a Week at the Airport

A review by M. Allen Cunningham

There's a fascinating chapter in Pico Iyer's The Global Soul, his pre-9/11 study of the millennial Zeitgeist, about a voluntary residency he once undertook at LAX. In airport terminals, Iyer observed, "we become children again." He meant it in every respect. The terminal makes you antsy, a bit unfocused, sometimes petulant -- even as it brings on a deep perceptiveness, a childlike fixation on the airport's peculiar blend of fantasy and tedium, where the sleek and dreamy merges with the humdrum or life-shattering. Now, into this terrain slips energetic British author Alain de Botton with A Week at the Airport, his account as inaugural "writer-in-residence" at Heathrow.

De Botton was born for the gig. His career in the course of his last six books has consisted of being infectiously, inquisitively childlike. Since 1997's How Proust Can Change Your Life he has reawakened readers to the wondrous weirdness of things we tend to view as inert artifacts or quotidian givens. His stylish specificity snaps us alert. Whether writing about one's possible reactions to the shape of a nose (in his analogy concerning architectural appreciation in The Architecture of Happiness), or about a tuna's journey from the Indian Ocean to a British supermarket freezer and finally onto a Bristol supper table, as in his recent The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, de Botton brings a sui generis blend of cool discernment, philosophical verve and the seemingly unwitting satirical quips of an innocent dreamer. (As when he notes of the British Airways Help Desk: "The staff shied away from existential issues.")

A Week enshrines the virtues of curiosity in a manner one can only call "De Bottonian," and makes a fine companion text to the beloved The Art of Travel (2002). In pages illuminated by photographer Richard Baker's arresting color images, De Botton narrates his all-access excursions through Heathrow's new state-of-the-art terminal as if interpreting its quintessential humanness for an envoy fresh from outer space. Or perhaps he's documenting it all for historians of some late-coming age; he sticks largely to an archival past tense: "In the end, there was something irremediably melancholic about the business of being united with one's luggage."

And he's not slumming here, as one sometimes sensed in the uncharacteristic sarcasm of The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work. He appreciates the visionary spirit of aerodynamics: "It seemed as unfair to evaluate an airline according to its profit-and-loss statement as to judge a poet by her royalty statements."

Simultaneously he probes the more hidebound facets of human nature on exhibit in the terminal, such as the bickering of a family embarking on a holiday: "Who could have predicted that long after we had managed to send men to the moon and aeroplanes to Australasia, we would still have such trouble knowing how to tolerate ourselves, forgive our loved ones, and apologize for our tantrums?"

He considers the big story the airport tells about our collective technological and geographical ambitions -- and the search for perfection spurring us. He captures the way airports and airplanes embody the bizarre juxtapositions of everyday modernity, things like in-flight breakfasts, or the "struggle with a small box of cornflakes over Edinburgh," i.e., at 40,000 feet. Standing witness to displays of emotion in the departures hall, he reminds us that we live our lives in a stream of other people's stories.

In Alain de Botton the airport has found its bard. This nondestination, so often hurried through en route to the "real" one, stands out as what it empirically is: a metaphor for modern existence -- where public and private perpetually blur, and life is always (for ourselves and our fellow travelers) defying expectation.


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