A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT by Alain de Botton

Book Quote:

“Had one been asked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilization—from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticizing of travel—then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (SEP 22, 2010)

Okay, maybe Ryan Bingham might have qualified. But considering that George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air was entirely fictional, the authorities at Heathrow airport settled on another huge fan of airports—writer Alain de Botton. They couldn’t have guessed just how big a fan de Botton is, when they contacted him to be a “writer-in-residence” for a week and write about the new and glitzy Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

While many of us love travel not many love airports—as in really love them. de Botton is different. He admits to wishing on occasion “for a delay so severe that I would be offered a meal voucher or, more dramatically, a night at an airline’s expense in a giant concrete Kleenex box with unopenable windows, corridors decorated with nostalgic images of propeller planes and foam pillows infused with the distant smells of kerosene.” So it didn’t take much for de Botton to accept the assignment and in the process, craft this absolutely delightful meditation on airports.

A Week at the Airport is filled with astute observations about the daily goings on at these hubs. de Botton systematically looks at all parts of the arrival and departure process—the arrivals zone, the goodbyes, the security lines, airline food and more. What’s more these observations are cloaked in language that is full of wry British humor. But the best part about is that it’s more than just a collection of funny and quirky observations. The genius in the book is that de Botton connects the dots with insight and wisdom and shows us the larger picture in the most routine of interactions. He finds poetry in the strangest of places—as in the restaurant menu at the local Sofitel branch.

de Botton’s ability to find meaning in the simplest of circumstances and situations is incredible. For example, he wonderfully points out class differences by using the example of a business class travelers’ lounge. While most of us might not think twice about such a thing, de Botton encourages us to think about what wildly varied set of circumstances would lead to “a tracksuited twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneur reading the Wall Street Journal by a stone-effect fireplace while waiting to board his flight to Seattle,” and contrast this situation to “that of a Filipina cleaner whose job it is to tour the bathrooms of an airline’s first-class lounge, swabbing the shower cubicles of their diverse and ever-changing colonies of international bacteria.”

In another very touching observation in the book, de Botton comes across a Ghanian family trying to extract a huge television set (a Samsung PS50) from the trunk of a taxicab. “It had been acquired the day before at a branch of Comet in Harlow and was eagerly awaited in the Kissehman quarter of Accra, where its existence would stand as evidence of the extraordinary status of its importer, a thirty-eight year-old dispatch driver from Epping,” de Botton writes. As he wonderfully points out, the purchaser of this television set is quite poor. But by bringing home this one prized treasure, he will be worshipped as the one who returned from England with goods that speak to his now outsized status—especially when contrasted against his poorer family members.

The one quibble I had about the project is that while de Botton does indeed spend a week at the airport, he gets there by train with no travel planned. Nor does he get there by plane from some place far away. You wonder how different or colored your perspective would be if you were to view all this unfolding after a 12-hour flight back from the far reaches of the world.

But A Week at the Airport is just fantastic reading—it’s a slim book that will earn its spot in your carry-on luggage. The beautiful photographs by Richard Baker, also complement the volume well.

There are insights in here for non-travelers too but for those of us who love to take to the sky and visit faraway places, this book captures some the romance and beauty of airports beautifully.

“When you get back, home all at once seems the strangest of destinations, its every detail relativised by the other lands one has visited,” de Botton points out. After mulling over the observations in A Week at the Airport, the reader will come away with a similar experience—things at arrivals and departures will never look quite the same again. Even if, when you cut into the suspicious looking salmon in your foil-covered dinner entrée thousands of miles up in the air, it might be of dubious consolation to know that 80,000 similar meals, “all intended for ingestion within the following fifteen hours somewhere in the troposphere” were prepared in a “windowless refrigerated factory” a mile from the terminal. Bon voyage!


AMAZON READER RATING: from 24 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Original edition (September 21, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More airport stories:Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

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September 22, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Non-fiction

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