The Tao of Travel

The mood may steal upon you or it may be a chronic disturbance, but who hasn’t felt the urge to be elsewhere? Modes of transport differ—walking boots, lottery ticket, bong—but there’s a new and better version somewhere, just waiting, with lots more color, sensuality, possibility, lots more. For many a stymied wayfarer, there’s been the solace of the travel narrative. To his readers’ delight, Paul Theroux has had a case of ants in his pants for half a century. He likes trains, preferably branch lines and night mails; slow boats will also do the trick. He goes far away, to the other, and we have gone along in rapt thanks. Still, even for Theroux getting on the move hasn’t always been an option—perhaps he was busy writing one of his twenty-eight novels—and books were his deliverance to elsewhere.

Theroux has collected in The Tao of Travel snippets from a lifetime’s travel reading (and writing), epigrammatic bites of prose poetry with the specific gravity of Viennese desserts. They contain a good selection of his own writings—a strange and wonderful warping of time-space, traveling back to when Theroux vicariously squired you to a distant place—as well as snatched aromatics from others’ works. The pieces range all over, from Basho, St. Augustine, and Thoreau on walking, to dining on turtle brain, monkey eye, elephant nose, and—god help us—garlic (Sir Richard Burton: “wherever fever and ague abound, the people ignorant of cause but observant of effect, make it a common article of food”). There are crack detonations of road-wisdom—Dervla Murphy on why to bring a kid along to the back of beyond: “A child’s presence emphasizes your trust in the community’s goodwill.” Equally engaging are Theroux’s selections of incandescent description and geographies of the mind, a bounty of the unexpected and the perverse that grace the best journeys, as well as the author’s own smart aperçus of his fellow travelers’ words, and the occasional, wicked jape at those who failed to stir from home: of Philip Larkin—”Needless to say, he lived for much of his life with his mother.”

This distillation is high, fine entertainment, but its mission is provocation, a kick in the pants to just go, wherever, go now: it’s rarely too soon, never too late, and the only adventure to rue is the one not taken.