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Alain de Botton's music for airports

October 19, 2010 |  7:15 am

Alaindebotton_heathrow

In August 2009, Alain de Botton — author of “How Proust Can Save Your Life,” “The Consolations of Philosophy,” “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” and other acclaimed works of nonfiction — was hired by BAA, the company that owns London’s Heathrow Airport, to spend a week in the airport as writer-in-residence. His short book about the experience, “A Week at the Airport,” was published the following month; 10,000 copies were distributed free to passengers.

With “A Week at the Airport” just out in the U.S., book critic David L. Ulin e-mailed De Botton to ask about airports, writing and the challenges of an instant book.

Jacket Copy: How did “A Week at the Airport” come about?

Alain de Botton: Heathrow Airport was looking for someone to fill the post [of writer-in-residence]. They asked around the publishers and literary agencies of London, I put my name forward, wrote a strong proposal letter and they chose me. I was desperate for the job as I’ve always loved airports but they are very hard places to write about. They are full of security measures and unhelpful regulations. But for this book, I was allowed to go anywhere and see anything -- it was the fulfillment of a dream for me.

JC: Did this give you pause, to be contracted by a company to write about its holdings?

AdB: I didn’t really feel worried about this because the airport paid me a modest fee to write the book, and the contract lasted for a month. Therefore, I would have been insane to forget my responsibilities to my readers for the sake of the airport. This is looking at the issue purely financially. Artistically, I also had no interest in providing the airport with advertising copy. They in turn had no desire for such a thing. We all knew that the project was only going to work if I was going to stay me -- and everyone respected this from the word go.

The real problem with airports is that we tend to go there when we need to catch a plane -- and because it’s so difficult to find the way to the gate, we tend not to look around at our surroundings. And yet airports definitely reward a second look -- they are the imaginative centers of the modern world. It’s here you should go to find, in a concrete form, all the themes of modernity that one otherwise finds only in abstract forms in the media. Here you see globalization, environmental destruction, runaway consumerism, family breakdown: the modern sublime in action.

JC: You seem to see the airport as both a physical portal for travelers and also a kind of metaphoric landscape of possibility.

AdB: Airports help to put us in touch with the idea of alternatives -- they relativize us. They make us think that right now, be it at 10 a.m. or 3 p.m., somewhere on the other side of the globe, very different things are happening. They do that very basic task of the places of travel: to jolt us into remembering that the world is stranger, more exciting, more various than we imagine it when we are in familiar surroundings, and in danger of boredom and routine.

JC: Some would argue that the fluidity of modern society is rending the bonds of community.

AdB: The airport really shows how much affection and community there is in the world. Airports always bring us into greater proximity with the possibility of death -- and this unconscious or semi-conscious awareness has the habit of releasing us from inhibitions and therefore making love potentially more possible. We break free of everyday habits and, sensing our mortality, are more open to the unusual encounter. People who have been in loveless marriages for decades will suddenly say unexpectedly romantic things in airports. The prospect of an air crash can do wonders for a sagging relationship.

JC: Throughout the book, you touch on these sorts of questions: of frailty, mortality, existential anxiety...

AdB: When flying, unconsciously we all know that we are tempting the gods, we are going up into the skies, which is their home, and an engine may break or a wing may snap off and all too easily, we may be reduced to flames. We don’t speak about this, but it’s impossible for the mind not to have this thought somewhere in its neuronal processes. That is why we shop at airports -- duty free is an attempt to flee from our sadness at the brevity and fragility of life.

JC: You have written about quieter consolations: Proust, philosophy, the pleasures of work. How does this connect?

AdB: I have always been interested in confronting daily life with big questions and themes. I felt I was doing this here too, taking the airport and colliding it with big themes about life, friendship, work, social status, money, class, nationality. These themes are all woven into the book, though hopefully not in ways that jar the reader.

JC: How much reporting did you do?

AdB: The whole book is reportage, but I hid this rather -- I didn’t want endless scenes describing how I came to see X with my notebook. I rather just gave the reader the material I had collected.

JC: How much writing did you do at Heathrow? Did you actually produce the book there?

AdB: No, I mostly wrote the book in the hotel room adjoining Heathrow at night.

JC: How did your residency affect your writing? What were the challenges of doing this in real time?

AdB: Writing to a deadline (of three weeks) was a huge pressure, but also a huge advantage. It freed me from endless anxieties. I knew that just getting the book done would be an achievement. I wasn’t thinking of immortality, and by having less time, I got more done.

JC: You call the project “an open invitation to users of the terminal to begin studying their setting with a bit more imagination and attention, to give weight to the feelings that airports provoke.”

AdB: My essential aim was to get readers to say, airports can be fascinating. It was to render curiosity about airports legitimate. Art can do that. It is a medium for re-evaluation.

JC: “There used to be time to arrive,” you also write. But now time is so compressed.

AdB: Airports come into existence because of our impatience. Otherwise, there would just be harbors and docks.

That said, often the nicest thing to do at an airport is not to go anywhere but to contemplate that one might go somewhere. Airport departure boards help to put us in touch with the idea of alternatives. They make us think that right now, somewhere on the other side of the globe, very different things are happening. They do that very basic task of the places of travel: jolt us into remembering that the world is stranger, more exciting, more various than we imagine it when we are in familiar surroundings, and in danger of boredom and routine.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Alain de Botton in Heathrow Airport, Aug. 18, 2009. Credit: Associated Press

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