The Books Interview: Alain de Botton

The philosopher discusses his new book A Week At the Airport

Your latest book is based on a week spent in Heathrow Airport. Why do this?
The problem with airports is that we 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 are the imaginative centres 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 an abstract form elsewhere.

Were you wary about being part of a corporate branding exercise?
Heathrow is famously ugly and crowded, and it had a lot of bad press the year before, after the disastrous opening of Terminal Five. I definitely wrestled with the idea that I would be the "guest" of an organisation that has had a really bad press. Then again, I knew from the start that I would be allowed to say whatever I wanted - and the book I've written is published by a normal publisher and wasn't even seen by the Heathrow Airport people. So I felt very free to say whatever I wanted, without fear of repercussions. What really tempted me to do the project was the access - airports are incredibly secretive and closed-off places. I've tried to write about Heathrow before and been escorted off the premises.

One of the great claims of global capitalism is that a public service operates best when its ultimate goal is private profit. How did this fit with your experience of the air industry?
My visit coincided with the greatest commercial crisis aviation has ever seen. The survival of a company such as British Airways is in question. And the real problem is overcapacity. It is this paradox that so interested Karl Marx in his analysis of capitalism: for most of human history, the greatest enemy has been shortage. But now, the greatest danger is that we have too much of everything. We haven't worked out how to organise the working world so that abundance is not detrimental, and benefits all of us.

Your ongoing project seems to be to encourage people to appreciate the aesthetics of their working lives. Isn't there plenty of art that does that anyway?
You're right; I'm interested in art that holds up a mirror to the working world. I fell in love with Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon, a description of the 1969 moon landing and the society that had produced Nasa - and was inspired by him to begin a kind of anthropology of modern life. I'm deeply sympathetic to other art forms that do this, from the films of Ken Loach to the photo essays of John Berger. Yet these kinds of artists are far from the mainstream - culture still tends to shy away from labour.

Critics of your writing assert that you pursue a "self-help" form of philosophy. Is that necessarily a bad thing?
The idea of a book that can make a change to your life, that can affect your perspective, is a beautiful and great ambition, one that Seneca, Nietzsche and Tolstoy would have sympathised with. Therefore it's a pity that, in our culture, books that get called “self-help" are generally so badly written and repetitive, patronising and too optimistic. But it would be a pity if the quality of these books were for ever to condemn all attempts to write usefully. This continues to seem like an exciting and interesting goal to pursue.

Interview by Daniel Trilling
Alain de Botton's "A Week at the Airport" is published by Profile Books (£8.99)