Ah, the airport. Crossroads of civilization, home to all the things that modern society finds essential to its smooth running: interminable lines, suspicious-looking armed people, second-rate bookstores and food courts, mix-ups, delays, horrifying realizations, panic attacks, and so much more.
But also, according to British author Alain de Botton, far more than that. Airports can be scenes of beauty, passion, creativity, and a kind of brilliant energy born from being nowhere at all, between every “real” place. This is the subject of his engaging 2009 book A Week at the Airport, released in paperback from Vintage Books this past September.
De Botton is a fascinating writer, of the “public intellectual” mold that’s increasingly rare. Although he writes for a popular audience, his books all seem to be pseudo-philosophical works on ways to live a better life; titles include How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolation of Philosophy, and The Art of Travel. Not surprisingly, he is also a founder and “ambassador” for an institution called the School of Life, which is a London-based organization that calls themselves “a new social enterprise offering good ideas for everyday living” on their website.
If the name of his organization seems well meaning but a tad on the pretentious side, you’ve more or less found the essence of de Botton. The basic premise of A Week at the Airport is that the author was invited by a multi-national mega-corporation that owns Heathrow (and a few other airports beside) to spend a week as the “writer-in-residence”: a full-time position, since he slept in the airport hotel, spent his day at a desk out on the terminal, and generally didn’t leave the premises while he worked on the book. It’s in terms of his “mission” that de Botton gets to be his most pretentious: when considering the ethical ramifications of being employed by an airport to write about an airport, he unselfconsciously says after just a few pages, “I understood that money accumulated on the battlefield or in the marketplace could fairly be redirected towards higher aesthetic ends.”
But possible delusions of grandeur aside, it’s impossible not to like A Week at the Airport, which is told in such a simple and unassuming voice that you end up thinking of the writer as a friend telling you a story. De Botton has a clear love for airports and for travel, and he reads as a quietly amazed fly on the wall. He is consistently amazed by the magnificence of the technology surrounding him: the airport terminal itself (graceful despite being the size of four soccer fields), the way airplane food is prepared (not as bad as you might think, but still pretty bad), and, most of all, the casual way airline employees react to having ridden hundred-ton steel behemoths tens of thousands of miles through the air to the other side of the world.
“Then again,” he says with characteristic humor, “the welcome may be no more effusive a hundred years hence, when, at the close of a nine-month voyage, against the eerie blood-red midday light bathing a spaceport in Mars’s Cydonian hills, a fellow human knocks at the gold-tinted window of our just-docked craft.”
Even more than the technological marvels he places at our fingertips, though, de Botton’s book is moving because of the humanity he draws out of a sometimes-inhuman place. Any frequent flier can attest that it sometimes feels like the airport is a place where every other human being is your enemy. What de Botton lays bare is the complexity and (believe it or not) benignity of most people on both sides of the airline equation: the friendly, attractive women who teach staff how to disarm terrorists, the thirty-year veteran shoe-shiner who treats every customer for twelve hours with kindness and enthusiasm, the young woman working on her dissertation but there on the part of an escort agency, and—probably most poignantly—the young couple separating (for who knows how long?) and unable to tear themselves apart from each other outside security.
At 107 pages, A Week at the Airport is a light read, not difficult to speed through. In fact, it seems even shorter: nearly every page features a gorgeous photograph by documentary photographer Richard Baker, making the text more like 75 percent of a page. So if you have time—and particularly if you’re the sort who likes to remember the sense of change, the rush of air, or the chiming intercom—pick up a copy and take the time to be transported back to that magical, liminal space that is the airport.