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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
I am not a Fresh Air Fiend. In fact, I detest the great outdoors. My idea of enjoying nature is to plant myself squarely in the middle of Central Park with my cell phone, Walkman, and a copy of The New York Times. I'm just about the last person you'd ever find kayaking in the Atlantic, camping out in the bush, or hunting in the wild.
But, as is the beauty of armchair travel, an excellent writer can turn even this hard-boiled, pavement-pounding woman into a fan of adventure travel. Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Into the Wild and Ernest Hemingway's " The Snows of Kilimanjaro" are among my favorite pieces of literature of all time.
I'm now prepared to add Paul Theroux's Fresh Air Fiend to that very short list. A collection of the masterful Theroux's travel writings since 1985, Fresh Air Fiend is a veritable encyclopedia of globe-trotting and adventure stories. Divided into seven sections, Fresh Air Fiend discusses the intellectual, theoretical, physical, psychological, literal, and emotional implications of a life of travel and the process of writing about these exploits.
Fresh Air Fiend is part autobiography, part historical commentary, part literary critique, and totally brilliant. Whether Theroux is tackling the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the experience of being a Peace Corps volunteer/draft dodger in Africa in the mid-1960s, or the grueling responsibilities of being an author on tour to promote a book, he uses meticulously chosen words to detail his past in the most entertaining and invigorating way.
"Who are the great travelers?" Theroux asks, as much of himself as of the reader. "They are all sorts, of course. A large number have been depressives, bipolar types capable of serious gloom...but at their best they are curious, contented, patient, courageous, and paragons of self-sufficiency. Their passion is visiting the unknown. Travel, which is nearly always regarded as an attempt to escape the ego, is in my opinion the opposite: nothing induces concentration or stimulates memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture."
That Theroux can so dexterously transport the reader from New England to old England to the old haunts of the British Empire is a testament to his skill as a writer. In fact, reading Fresh Air Fiend is a bit like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The book is incredibly broad in its scope -- covering Theroux's adventures on five continents and in and out of the waters in between them. You can thumb through the table of contents and pick a destination you'd like to visit, and then let the talented Mr. Theroux be your guide.
Feeling like a trip up the Yangtze River in China? Theroux will take you on a Heart of Darkness-esque journey into China and guide you through the country's turbulent clash between modernization, industrialization, communist beliefs, and free-market sensibility, contemplating the likely outcome of China's fight for a place in the world.
Want a glimpse at pre-independence Africa? The days when colonial bureaucrats were fighting to retain a shred of empirical self-importance amid the stirrings of nationalist sentiments? Theroux, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and English teacher in Uganda, will offer you a detailed snapshot of the miserable ironies of being an outsider trying to make sense of the impending future of the continent.
Do you want to revisit Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe? Theroux will take you to an unnamed island off the coast of Guam, identified only by its global positioning coordinates, where he humorously tries to turn an unspoiled utopia into a wired world. Armed with a satellite phone, a Newton electronic notepad, beeper, and video camera, Theroux makes phone calls from the beach all over the world, makes a movie of himself, and tries to write out notes for a story, only to have his batteries run out within a half hour. But rather than express frustration, Theroux writes that "it seemed pathetic that the vitality of such sophisticated electronics depended upon such clumsy, feeble batteries.... My uplink was as useless as the doubloons that Robinson Crusoe mocks on his island."
Fresh Air Fiend is a truly incredible and inspiring read, so much so that you wouldn't want to thumb through it. You'll want to read it cover to cover, and then perhaps read it again, in order to fully absorb Theroux's intelligent thoughts and well-crafted sentences. His perspective on these manifold, far-flung locations is unique in its brilliance, and the pleasure you'll derive from taking a glimpse into his mind, and his view of the world, is enormous. (Emily Burg)
Emily Burg is a New York-based freelancer.