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A Week at the Airport by Alain De Botton

A Week at the Airport (2009)

by Alain De Botton

Other authors: Richard Baker (Photographer)

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A week at the airport. A Heathrow diary is a memorial piece of writing, documenting Heathrow airport. It is a dull and rather uninteresting booklet. Have any such memorials been written about Paddington or Waterloo station in the 1850s? If so, we are not reading them

The resulting, small book was a commission. The company that manages Heathrow Airport, "a multinational enterprise, otherwise focused on the management of landing fees and effluents" (p. 144) invited Alan de Botton to become "Heathrow's first writer-in-residence". Once the commission was accepted, the author's patron, "Colin Matthews, the chief executive of BAA, the owner of Heathrow" made no demands, and the author was left entiirely free to write the book as he wanted. In the opening chapter, the essayist ponders on this generosity, and the institute of patronage of artists. Foolish or not, De Botton decided to accept the invitation.

Why De Botton was approached is not mentioned, perhaps because he wrote The Art of Travel (2002) or is more generally seen as an essayist. However, he is a bit of a maverick, and particularly his earlier works did not seem very serious. Was Heathrow from the start looking for a "middle-of-the-road man"? Not that exuberantly famous, neither controversial. Or was the author chosen for any particular skill. That was in 2009. In 2011, Tony Parsons became the second writer-in-residence at Heathrow. He wrote Departures: Seven Stories from Heathrow. This booklet apparently did not do very well. Did he screw up? There haven't been any new writers-in-residence at the airport since. Have the powers-that-be lost interest in literature, so soon?

A week at the airport. A Heathrow diary is quite successful, surprisingly, as it is also pretty dull. De Botton is quite sarcastic at times about his commission and the facilities he could make use of. An airport is just not that fascinating. Are the "Airport Priests" really there because travellers anticipate the possibility of death? De Botton really wants to show that his patron made a good choice selecting him, and sprinkles the text with philosophical observations and references to philosophers. Hence, the observation that the dominance of consumerism at the airport is connected to travellers fear of a deadly accident. It seems rather far-fetched. On the other hand, the author does not mention the stress that is often so palpable at airports.

We do not normally stand still, to contemplate a utility such as an airport. On the other hand, an essay can be about anything, why not an airport? Whether De Botton did the best he could, writing A week at the airport. A Heathrow diary is doubtful. He just did his job, it seems. The book is well-crafted, but not inspired. A week at the airport. A Heathrow diary may not be so interesting now, but perhaps in 2160, a 150 years on, it will be a valuable source, or even common people may read it with relish. ( )
  edwinbcn | Feb 17, 2015 |
I got really into this book. The format is simple. There are three sections: departures, airside, and arrivals. Each offers its own issues and insight into how an airport operates beyond the short amount of time people usually spend there. There are touching stories of people around for only a fleeting moment. De Botton talks to various people about why they are there, including staff. Some people he just observes and plays the game of trying to guess their circumstances without knowing anything about them. The resulting book is part diary, part philosophical treatise. It made me think.
  Tselja | Oct 21, 2014 |
This is a slight book, enlivened by some excellent reportage-style photography, it doesn't say much and it doesn't go anywhere and was written at the behest of the BAA boss for the new terminal 5 at Heathrow airport. I hope he thinks he got value for money.

That said, it was quite an enjoyable mix of philosophic musings and the life of an airport, of travel. I would think it would actually be the ideal book to pass time waiting at the gate for the plane to be called. ( )
  Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
Alain de Botton was invited to spend a week at Heathrow, to observe and interpret the moments of the world's busiest airport. I anticipated a literary behind the scenes tour, but instead was rewarded with a different but ultimately more satisfying collection of reflections on the nature of journeys, anticipation, human foibles, power, economics and shoe-shines.
He reminds us that anything and everything can be interesting, even the mundane things we encounter every day, but no longer really see or notice because they are so familiar. If we look with a traveller's eye, we can once again see the wonders and complexities of our own daily worlds. It's a slim little book, littered with small photos accompanying his observations, and is a fast but satisfying read. ( )
1 vote BCbookjunky | Mar 31, 2013 |
This is a light version of his Art of Travel, which is not a bad thing at all. ( )
  rkreish | Mar 31, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Let me start by saying, on a purely aesthetic note, that De Botton’s books are always graphically interesting and stylistically ahead of the black-and-white pack.
The bizarre idea behind this work is that Alain de Botton would become London’s Heathrow Airport’s first “writer-in-residence,” stationed for an entire week in the new Terminal 5, observing passengers and talking with staff from shoe-shiners to security guards. His observations run the full gamut of the airport experience (he is no PR mouthpiece for Heathrow, as the premise of this book almost hints), from the uncomfortable (awakening at 5:30 am to the sound of descending planes), to the vast (the pure scale of Terminal 5, coupled with the diversity of humanity to walk its corridors), to the materialistic (the reverence for the executive lounge, which reeks of a caste system to me), to the inspiring (groups holding handmade signs to welcome back loved ones from far away).


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Alain De Bottonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baker, RichardPhotographersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip, I have often longed for my plane to be delayed-- so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport.
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Meditative writings about one of the world's busiest international terminals liken an airport to a microcosm of modern-world themes, feature interviews with travelers and workers and share observations on topics ranging from haiku-like concession menus to the silence on a nighttime runway.… (more)

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