A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

I am in the midst of reading A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton. I heard about the book on the “On Point” radio show. As you can guess, de Botton (a Swiss-born philosopher) spends a week at an airport. In this case, it’s the Heathrow Airport in London. He’s actually asked by the company that owns the airport to partake in the project. They sort of want to show off the new Terminal 5, but also provide the public with an in-depth look at an airport.

The idea is that travelers, in their rush to get to their destination, often overlook the ins and outs of what’s going on around them (including the philosophical questions that airports and travel evoke). So de Botton is assigned to a desk in the middle of the terminal, where he makes observations, interviews travelers and airport employees, and takes notes. He put his thoughts into the approximately 100-page book. The book includes many colorful photos from his time at the airport.

I’m about halfway through A Week at the Airport, and I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. Sometimes I like de Botton’s excrutiatingly detailed observations/long sentences, and other times I find they get in the way of my interpretation of what’s going on. In other words, I’m expending so much effort trying to understand what he’s saying that they slow me down. This description of de Botton’s hotel (and its surroundings) reflects his style:

“The hotel and terminal seemed like a giant machine poised in standby mode, emitting an uncanny hum from a phalanx of slowly rotating exhaust fans. I thought of the hotel’s spa, its hot tub perhaps still bubbling in the darkness. The sky was a chemical orange colour, observing the final hours of the fragile curfew it has been keeping ever since it had swallowed up the last of the previous evening’s Asia-bound flights. Jutting from the side of the terminal was the disembodied tail of British Airways A321, anticipating another imminent odyssey in the merciless cold of the lower stratosphere.”

I enjoy de Botton’s frequent philosophical musings. Like when he writes about a man who screams after arriving at the terminal too late to board his Tokyo-bound plane. The man is very upset that he can’t fly for another 48 hours, and that he’ll miss out on a day of meetings. De Botton follows the little anecdote with these two paragraphs:

“I was reminded of the Roman philosopher Seneca’s treatise On Anger, written for the benefit of the Emperor Nero, and in particular of its thesis that the root cause of anger is hope. We are angry because we are overly optimistic, insufficiently prepared for the frustrations endemic to existence. A man who screams every time he loses his keys or is turned away at an airport is evincing a touching but recklessly naive belief in a world in which keys never go away and our travel plans are invariable assured.

Given Seneca’s analysis, it was ominous to note the direction that the airline was taking in its advertising. It was promising ever more confidently to try its very best to serve, to please and to be punctual. As a result, in an industry as vulnerable to disaster as this one, there were surely many more screams to come.”

I also enjoy how de Botton’s ruminations patch together different times and places. For example, he discusses how the wealthy carry the least amount of luggage because they believe they can now buy anything anywhere. He goes on to say:

“But they had perhaps never visited a television retailer in Accra or they might have looked more favorably upon a Ghanian family’s decision to import a Samsung PS50, a high-definition plasma machine the weight and size of a laden coffin.”

While that passage referred to another part of the world, the one below refers to another time– the future. De Botton has just discussed the casual way in which ground staff and colleagues in a plane greet one another after an 11,000-kilometer journey:

“Then again, the welcome may be no more effusive a hundred years hence, when, at the close of a nine-minute voyage, against the eerie blood-red midday light bathing a spaceport in Mars’s Cydonian hills, a fellow human knocks at the gold-tinted window of our just-docked craft.”

Overall I’m enjoying the book, though I sometimes have a problem with its overly windy passages, and lack of action. De Botton muses over the simplest-seeming of gestures or happenings, but sometimes I find myself wanting to draw my own conclusions. Tell me what’s happening, and I’ll make my own interpretations. But maybe he hasn’t seen enough in a week at the airport to provide enough good stories.

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