Exclusive Interview - AbeBooks Speaks With Author Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

What’s your favourite second-hand bookshop? (And why)
My favourite off-line bookshop is Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, a place full of great things – and possessed of a wonderfully relaxed spirit too. Online, it’s AbeBooks I always turn to, simply because the choice is so much the greatest.

What role does finding interesting books off the beaten track play in your life?
It’s frightening just how much of a role chance plays in discovering books – frightening because it makes me think of every book I haven’t discovered and that might have changed my life. A book that heavily influenced my book The Art of Travel was Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around My Bedroom: it was by pure chance that I stumbled on an old copy in a shop in Paris.

...As a thinker, I also tend to be inspired by things that I can see happening in and around me.

What has been your most interesting find on AbeBooks?
I’m amazed whenever I manage to find back issues of old magazines on AbeBooks. I really felt like I was finding a needle in a haystack when I came across a back number of an architectural magazine, A + U, which I desperately needed and couldn’t find anywhere other than on AbeBooks: which connected me to a small shop in Germany which had a copy.

Is there one particular book that you want but have yet to find?
Yes, the perfect book I feel I could write, but never can…

Your books examine everyday life - why does that subject fascinate you?
I am by nature interested in the concrete. Abstract speculation quickly tires me. I need tangible experiences to excite me. As a thinker, I also tend to be inspired by things that I can see happening in and around me.

What other areas of everyday life particularly appeal to you?
I am principally interested in two things: beauty and pain. Beautiful things make me want to write about them in order to celebrate them. Pain makes me want to try to understand what’s difficult.

...we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel acceptable to ourselves.

Who else has interesting things to say about everyday aspects of modern life?
Marcel Proust is probably the greatest writer on the subject. His work is full of beautiful descriptions of ordinary moments and ordinary frailties and follies.

You must be a committed people-watcher? If so, how do you observe people?
Noticing that you’re noticing someone can be a killer of inspiration, so if I do observe people, it tends to be in quiet unconscious ways. Later on, back in my study, I might realise that I’ve sucked some interesting samples in.

Is ‘Status Anxiety’ a purely British phenomenon?
If only. It’s very much global. Status anxiety is a worry about our standing in the world, whether we’re going up or down, whether we’re winners or losers. We care about our status for a simple reason: because most people tend to be nice to us according to the amount of status we have – if they hear we’ve been promoted, there’ll be a little more energy in their smile, if we are sacked, they’ll pretend not to have seen us.

Ultimately, we worry about having no status because we’re not good at remaining confident about ourselves if other people don’t seem to like or respect us very much. Our ‘ego’ or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring external love to remain inflated and vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect: we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel acceptable to ourselves.

While it would be unusual to be status anxious in a famine, history shows that as soon as societies go any way beyond basic subsistence, status anxieties quickly kick in. In the modern world, status anxiety starts when we compare our achievements with those of other people we consider to be our equals. We might worry about our status when we come across an enthusiastic newspaper profile of an acquaintance (it can destroy the morning), when a close friend reveals a piece of what they naively – or plain sadistically – call ‘good’ news (they have been promoted, they are getting married, they have reached the bestseller list) or when we are asked what we ‘do’ at a party by someone with a firm handshake who has recently floated their own start-up company.

Does ‘Status Anxiety’ extend to yourself?
Of course, I compare myself to my own peer group. We all do this, and that’s why we end up feeling we lack things even though we’re so much better off than people ever were in the past. It’s not that we’re especially ungrateful, it’s just we don’t judge ourselves in relation to people far away. We cannot be cheered for long by how prosperous we are in historical or geographical terms. We will only take ourselves to be fortunate when we have as much as, or more than, the people we grow up with, work alongside, have as friends and identify with in the public realm. That’s why the best way to feel successful is to choose friends who are just that little bit less successful than you…

Is the phenomenon of ‘Status Anxiety’ getting worse?
Status anxiety is certainly worse, because the possibilities for achievement (sexual, financial or professional) seem to be greater than ever. There are so many more things we expect if we’re not to judge ourselves ‘losers.’ We are constantly surrounded by stories of people who have made it. For most of history, an opposite assumption held sway: low expectations were viewed as both normal and wise. Only a very few ever aspired to wealth and fulfilment. The majority knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation.

...Aside from love, few events are anticipated more eagerly, nor form the subject of more complex or enriching daydreams than our travels.

Of course, it remains highly unlikely that we will today ever reach the pinnacle of society. It is perhaps as unlikely that we could rival the success of Bill Gates as that we could in the seventeenth century have become as powerful as Louis XIV. Unfortunately though, it no longer feels unlikely – depending on the magazines one reads, it can in fact seem absurd that one hasn’t already managed to have it all.

Have people commented that The Art of Travel has changed their perception of being on the move?
Yes, and many of them have been grateful that the book allowed them to admit that they too had had some doubts about the value of travel. The prospect of a holiday can usually persuade even the most down-cast that life is worth living. Aside from love, few events are anticipated more eagerly, nor form the subject of more complex or enriching daydreams than our travels. They seem to offer us perhaps our finest chance to achieve happiness outside of the constraints of work. During the long working weeks, we can vitally be sustained by our dreams of going somewhere else, somewhere far from home, a place with better weather, more interesting customs and inspiring landscapes – and where it seems we stand a chance of finally being happy.

But of course the reality of travel seldom matches the daydreams. The tragi-comic disappointments are well-known: the sense of disorientation, the mid-afternoon despair, the arguments, the lethargy before ancient ruins. When we look at pictures of places we want to go and see (and imagine how happy we would be if only we were there), we are prone to forget one crucial thing: that we will have to take ourselves along with us. That is, we won’t just be in India/South Africa/Australia/Prague/Peru in a direct, unmediated way, we’ll be there with ourselves, still imprisoned in our own bodies and minds – with all the problems this entails.

Do the travel requirements of being an author make travel mundane for you?
I love travelling for business – it gives me a purpose and means that even if I don’t enjoy the destination, I don’t question why I am there.

Was there a single journey or trip that inspired you to write The Art of Travel?
I’ve always been haunted by the business of just being on the road, driving down a motorway late at night. That’s the image that started the book…

If you couldn’t write, what alternative profession would appeal to you?
There are some writers who claim to be unfitted to doing anything other than writing. I’m not one of them and indeed am very drawn to the idea of a life that manages to contain both contemplative and active sides.

I’ve been searching in recent years for how to give shape to my ideas outside of just books. For example, I’m currently writing a book on architecture, and rather than just argue for what I think is beautiful, I would like to enact my vision in the real world. I’m therefore involved with some people, discussing opportunities for how to develop properties.

I’m also keen one day to start a new kind of university, what I’m calling The University of Life, which would align what is taught in the humanities more closely with people’s everyday concerns.

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