Review on the Go: Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport, a slim book about a week the author spent living at Heathrow airport and writing about what he observed, is at points revelatory and remarkable, and at other points overly ornate and self-indulgent. Though de Botton’s prose occasionally bothered me, the book is an illuminating rumination on many aspects of airports and the people who work in and pass through them. Not a bad way to spend a layover or a 6-hour transcontinental flight.
Full review: Alain de Botton has the job that I want. Well, one of the jobs that I want, anyways. If you haven’t heard of him, Alain de Botton is a Swiss writer whose books include collections of essays, a novel, and numerous works of non-fiction, including How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Architecture of Happiness, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and The Consolation of Philosophy. His writing is often described as personal, philosophical, charming, and perceptive. I’m a fan of those adjectives, and I’d love to be paid for the performance of any of these verbs: ponder, think, observe, consider, contemplate, philosophize, pontificate, write.
I’ve been wanting to read de Botton for a while, and though I thought that his book The Art of Travel would be a good place to start, and definitely appropriate to review on Go Girl, as I headed out for a weekend visit to Seattle with a carry-on already overfull of books, I decided to go with his much shorter work, A Week at the Airport. It’s a slim, inviting paperback, the sort of book that draws you in with the specificity of its premise and the promise of revealing to you the sort of secrets that hide in plain sight, revelations of the extraordinary ordinary, so to speak.
The idea behind the book is very simple: de Botton was invited to spend a week living in Heathrow airport’s newly constructed Terminal 5, and to use the week to gather observations upon which to base a book about the terminal and those who work in and pass through it. For seven days he didn’t leave the airport’s premises, sleeping in the Sofitel hotel attached to the terminal, ordering room service or eating his meals at the hotel restaurant or in the airport itself, and talking only to airport employees and travelers passing through from one gate to another. He worked at a desk set up in the terminal, and spoke with passengers and airport employees alike, recording their stories as well as his own observations about the place, the planes, and the people.
The best parts of the book, to me, were his descriptions of the workings of the airport itself. I’ve given a lot of thought to airports as bastions of anonymity, as ideal venues for people watching, as gateways to infinite possibilities and destinations, and as spaces of transition (both personal and spatial), but de Botton showed me that my thoughts about airports have been rather narrow, pertaining more to individual travelers (and one particular individual: me) than to the airport itself.
Airports, especially one’s like Heathrow, are huge and complicated organizations. In order to function properly, they depend on thousands of people, from baggage handlers, janitors and customer service representatives, to security forces, immigration officers, bankers and lawyers. And that figure only considers the airport itself, not the exterior industries essential to it, like food manufacturers, aeronautical engineers, fuel providers, etc. etc.
De Botton draws a fascinating portrait of different areas of airport operations—from the manager of the airport’s bookstore, to the two women in charge of training its security workers, to the CEO of British Airlines itself. My favorite parts, however, were less about people, and more about the physical architecture of the airport and its parts, like this passage describing a whole fleet of planes, in line one after another:
Repetition lent to their fuselage designs a new beauty: the eye could follow a series of identical motifs down a fifteen-strong line of dolphin-like bodies, the resulting aesthetic effect only enhanced by the knowledge that each plane had cost some $250 million, and that what lay before one was therefore a symbol not just of the modern era’s daunting technical intelligence but also of its prodigious and inconceivable wealth.
It’s moments like this one where de Botton is at his best, drawing out connections that are easily apparent but also easily overlooked, and considering the oft ignored implications—economic, psychological, philosophical—and consequences of the objects we build and take pride in, and of the choices we make when it comes to where and how we travel, how and for what we conduct our business, or how we treat the people we love.
In the end, I’m not sure whether it was jealousy, or my high expectations (or my recognition that the faults I found in de Botton’s writing are the same ones that I feel prone to myself) that made me find the book, in the end, disappointing. At points, his writing is outstanding, but I also found that he tends toward self-indulgence and exaggeration. Occasionally I felt like he was making something out of nothing, instead of pointing out the somethings we take for nothing.
Take this passage, from the book’s introduction:
In a world of chaos and irregularity, the terminal seemed a worthy and intriguing refuge of elegance and logic. It was the imaginative centre of contemporary culture. 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 in the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.
He writes persuasively, but nonetheless, as I finished the book and began writing about it, I found myself wondering whether de Botton isn’t responsible for some romanticizations of his own. Sure, Terminal 5 at Heathrow might be a great place to take a Martian looking to understand human culture…but it’s certainly not the only place on all of earth that one could go, or even, necessarily, the best.
I have to wonder, too, if people who wind up “living” in Terminal 5 on layovers or airline screwups would have the same appreciation for its construction and operation!