Book Review: A Week At The Airport by Alain de Botton

by on June 19, 2011 · 6 comments

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On my recent Tokyo trip, I had the pleasure of spending nearly 30 hours in an airplane, which gave me plenty of time to sleep, eat and read. Actually, this is one of the things I love most about flying – in the air my cell phone is switched off, emails are off (at least for the international legs) and I have time to do what I want to do. In fact, I just calculated my flying this year and since January 1, 2011 I have flown 79,650 “butt-in-seat” miles, with another 25,000 over the next four weeks. While some people would shudder at that thought – it actually excites me. I never get time to read when I’m on terra firma, because I’m always plugged in and on-the-go. However my time in the air allows me mute the “noise” in life and focus on me – if only for a little while. I think that’s the real appeal of my addiction to flying and I know it must be for many of you as well.

Anyway, the point of this post is to talk about an interesting book I read on my Tokyo flight, A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton. It’s a short novel about the writers experience “living” at London’s Heathrow Terminal 5 for a week. It’s only 112 pages, so you could practically read this on a New York to Boston flight, but he packs in some interesting thoughts on airports and the concept of traveling in general.

The most interesting part for me was his unique analysis of people’s behavior in airports. The story that sticks out the most for me is when he talks about airport goodbyes and he (somewhat creepily) follows two lovers who absolutely don’t want to leave each other and make multiple attempts to say goodbye, but end up walking around the terminal until the last possible moment. I think this is something we’ve all experience in one way or another – whether it’s saying goodbye to a lover or simply your life in that current city, there’s always some sort of morbid deep excitement/terror knowing that you may never come back.

De Botton uncovers the human side of airport life, which I’ve never read about before. I’ve spent countless hours in airports and they always seem so sterile, yet you know so much happens within those walls that no one ever talks about it. The only time people discuss airports is when there are massive flight delays or the roof collapses (like at Charles de Gaulle in 2004).

While it’s an interesting book, I was disappointed by its brevity. I really feel like he could have dug a lot deeper, even on seemingly trivial subjects like the factory where they make in-flight meals. He makes a cursory note about the immigrants who make the meals, but doesn’t dig any further. Personally, I’m always fascinated by airline food (as you see in my trip reports), so I would have liked to hear a different angle on the meals, other than they are mass produced in a factory-like environment by immigrants.

Overall, it’s an easy read that most travelers will relate to in one way or another. With a lot of upcoming travel and beach time, I’m always looking for good book recommendations, so please comment below with your thoughts – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a travel related book.

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  • Kris

    I totally agree about the state of being ‘unplugged’ as one of the many alluring things about travel. My fiance and I are both TV producers, and the only time our work issued blackberries ever turn off is when we’re on an international vacation. Even though I only have a limited amount of vacation time at this point in my career, about 5 weeks (first world problem, I know), we just booked our third international trip in a year and I’m ecstatic.

    This book sounds interesting and I may check it out if it’s on Kindle… As far as recommendations go, have you ever read any Haruki Murakami? Great post-modern Japanese author… very trippy but interesting and engrossing fiction. Try ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ or ‘Kafka on the Shore.’

  • Canadense

    Great post…thanks for the book suggestion.
    Not sure if you are aware but you don’t have to “calculate up your miles flown” on Someone suggested it on or flyertalk. Great site to check out if you have time.


  • Charlotte

    Sounds like an interesting read. I just finished Thunderstruck by Erick Larsen, which is a travel story from another time. It is nonfiction and ties in the story of Marconi’s telegraph development and how it helped catch a murdered on a transatlantic ship passage. IMHO he writes nonfiction in a way that makes you have to think that this is nonfiction and not fiction. Started reading his stuff after a friend gave me Devil in the White City about the first Chicago’s World’s Fair.

  • Mark

    1) You said: “The only time people discuss airports is when there are massive flight delays or the roof collapses (like at Charles de Gaulle in 2004).” Don’t forget about the recent events at the St. Louis airport which was blown to shreds by the tornado.

    2) You said you loved the book but it was too short. You should just write a similarly themed book but from your perspective. I am sure it would be great. You have a great writing style.

  • The Points Guy

    @Mark- how could I forget the STL tornado!? And thanks for your compliments- maybe I will write a book one of these days :-)

  • The Points Guy

    @Charlotte- thanks for the rec- I’ve never read Larsen, but its been on my to-do list. I will pick one of his books up before my next trip, for sure

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