Today we expect nonfiction to be either comic or somber: to make us laugh, or to inform us, warn us, or terrify us with accounts of miserable childhoods or natural and political disasters. The idea that prose might be both casual in manner and serious in intent is almost forgotten. It survives, however, in the work of Alain de Botton. In the last decade he has considered—in books whose brevity and informal tone disguise the occasional gravity of their content—travel, love, literature, philosophy, and the value of reading. His best-known work, How Proust Can Change Your Life, is accurately described on its flyleaf as both a perceptive literary biography and a self-help manual.
The simplicity of his writing is not the product of a simple mind. De Botton, who was born in Zurich in 1969, has a double first from Cambridge in history and philosophy, and is now director of the graduate philosophy program at the University of London. His aversion to deliberately difficult scholarly prose, however, has always been intense. In The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) he remarked that “there are…no legitimate reasons why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax.” He then quoted one of his favorite authors, Montaigne, who remarked over four hundred years ago that “the search for new expressions and little-known words derives from an adolescent schoolmasterish ambition.”
De Botton was a natural essayist from the start. The three novels that began his career, On Love (1993), The Romantic Movement (1994), and Kiss and Tell (1995), though cast as contemporary love stories, are essentially frames upon which to hang observations on various subjects, much as in the days before washing machines, colorful wet clothes were spread out on drying racks. Kiss and Tell, for instance, riffs on biography and autobiography, The Romantic Movement on sentimentality, fashion, interior decoration, unrequited love, and many other topics.
After this, de Botton’s books were openly presented as nonfiction. In The Consolations of Philosophy he explains how writers as different as Plato, Epicurus, Seneca, and Schopenhauer can relieve us of anxiety for the future and financial loss and comfort a broken heart. Perhaps somewhat ironically, he often recommends an attitude of philosophical detachment, remarking that
the Greek philosopher Pyrrho once travelled on a ship which ran into a fierce storm. All around him passengers began to panic…. But one passenger did not lose his composure and sat quietly in a corner, wearing a tranquil expression. He was a pig.
However, in a passage that suggests an atypical unfamiliarity with natural history, or an unusual erotic life, de Botton admits that detachment is not always possible under the influence of desire, which forces us
to abandon sensible plans in order to lie in bed with people, sweating and letting out intense sounds reminiscent of hyenas calling out to one another across the barren wastes of the American deserts.”
De Botton’s The Art of Travel …