Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen

Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen

Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen

Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen


What is a hotel? As Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl show us in this thought-provoking book, even though hotels are everywhere around us, we rarely consider their essential role in our modern existence and how they help frame our sense of who and what we are. They are, in fact, as centrally important as other powerful places like prisons, hospitals, or universities. More than simply structures made of steel, concrete, and glass, hotels are social and political institutions that we invest with overlapping and contradictory meaning. These alluring places uniquely capture the realities of our world, where the lines between public and private, labor and leisure, fortune and failure, desire and despair are regularly blurred. Guiding readers through the story of hotels as places of troublesome possibility, as mazelike physical buildings, as inspirational touchstones for art and literature, and as unsettling, even disturbing, backdrops for the drama of everyday life, Levander and Guterl ensure that we will never think about this seemingly ordinary place in the same way again.


People stay at a hotel for many reasons. Ask, and you might be told, “I was on the road, and I needed a place to sleep.” This is a pragmatist’s answer, focusing on the usefulness and utilitarian value of the hotel. But people stay at hotels for other reasons, too. They recognize that there is usually more to be gained by renting a room than just a good night’s sleep—that there are a variety of less tangible and often unspoken needs, wants, hopes, and desires that a hotel stay might be able to provide. And whether that additional value can be measured or not, they want it. Whether it is real or not, they expect it.

As the epigraphs of this book suggest, for the poet Maya Angelou the hotel offers release from the everyday and exhilarating connection to creative language; for Tess Gallagher, the hotel’s anonymity is itself a provocation, its indistinguishable rooms a challenge for their temporary inhabitants to rediscover a long-forgotten originality and clarity of purpose; and for the recording artist Moby, it is a rich analogy for the impermanence of relationships and life in general, an ultimate referent that is deeply generative of creative musical expression. But, of course, these are only a sampling of the seemingly infinite array of expectations that travelers bring to the hotel in modern times.

This book is about what, beyond sleep and shelter for the traveler, the hotel offers and why, particularly over the past century, people seek it out with increasing frequency and urgency.

Hotel Life is, at its core, an excavation of the shifting hopes, dreams, and desires that go along with the plastic key card in every room rate and package deal. As Norman Hayner observed almost eighty years ago, hotel life is a transient life—it is characterized, on the one hand, by mobility and detachment and, on the other hand, by freedom and release from restraint. The hotel concentrates and packages these differing aspects of “modern life as a whole” to those seeking temporary shelter within the . . .

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