Book Review: A Week at the Airport

Airports are a fascinating place and they’ve morphed modern culture into something unimaginable just a relatively short time ago. The extraordinary writer and philosopher, Alain de Botton, was given a unique employment opportunity to explore the human condition as the “writer-in-residence” at London’s Heathrow airport.

This book, then, is his interesting and philosophical examination of humanity through observations made at Heathrow. As the back of the book states, “Airports are a showcase for many of the major crosscurrents of the modern world–from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our global interconnectedness to our romanticizing of the exotic.” The beauty of the writing combined with de Botton’s philosophical style is part of what makes A Week at the Airport an excellent read.

At one point in the “Departures” section of the book, de Botton briefly touched on a concept from Stoic philosophy that I had read about in the past and embraced, i.e., that optimism is the root cause of anger. De Botton observed a man who just missed the boarding period for his flight to Tokyo; upon learning that the airline wouldn’t make an exception for him he violently pounded his fist on the counter while letting out a primal scream. De Botton writes: “We are angry because we are overly optimistic, insufficiently prepared for the frustrations endemic to existence.” Unfortunately, this man was under the recklessly naive belief that travel plans never go astray.

Another of de Botton’s thoughts I found particularly fascinating was why he thinks we long for exotic travel; perhaps, I found it fascinating because I find myself longing for exotic travel. As de Botton says, “Travel agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives rather than simply where we wish to go.” I interpreted the underlying thought as follows: “your” problems will follow you wherever “you” go; they’re internal and can not be assuaged through a mere change of physical location.

We can learn a lot about humans from studying airports. De Botton reflects: “In a world full of chaos and irregularity, the terminal seemed a worthy and intriguing refuge of elegance and logic. It was the imaginative centre of contemporary culture.” Indeed it is.

[click the following for and copies of the book]