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Paul Theroux celebrates fifty years of wandering the globe by collecting the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him, as a reader and a traveler. Part philosophical guide, part miscellany, part reminiscence, The Tao of Travel enumerates “The Contents of Some Travelers’ Bags” and exposes “Writers Who Wrote about Places They Never Visited”; tracks extreme journeys in “Travel as an Ordeal” and highlights some of “Travelers’ Favorite Places.” Excerpts from the best of Theroux’s own work are interspersed...
Paul Theroux celebrates fifty years of wandering the globe by collecting the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him, as a reader and a traveler. Part philosophical guide, part miscellany, part reminiscence, The Tao of Travel enumerates “The Contents of Some Travelers’ Bags” and exposes “Writers Who Wrote about Places They Never Visited”; tracks extreme journeys in “Travel as an Ordeal” and highlights some of “Travelers’ Favorite Places.” Excerpts from the best of Theroux’s own work are interspersed with selections from travelers both familiar and unexpected:
Vladimir Nabokov J.R.R. Tolkien
Samuel Johnson Eudora Welty
Evelyn Waugh Isak Dinesen
Charles Dickens James Baldwin
Henry David Thoreau Pico Iyer
Mark Twain Anton Chekhov
Bruce Chatwin John McPhee
Freya Stark Peter Matthiessen
Graham Greene Ernest Hemingway
The Tao of Travel is a unique tribute to the pleasures and pains of travel in its golden age.
A "diverting meditation on passages from his own and other writers' works. [T]he strongest pieces descry a tangible place through a discerning eye and pungent sensibility..."
From prolific travel writer and novelist Theroux (A Dead Hand, 2011, etc.), an eclectic compendium of travel-related trivia, quotes, quips and advice.
Travel is a metaphor for living; the line between the travels and the traveler is fine; in the words of the Buddha, "You cannot travel the path before you have become the path itself." These ideas, the author explains in the preface to this curious anthology, comprise the essential philosophy behind this determinedly personal collection of travel appreciation. In a series of short chapters, Theroux looks at life on the road from perspectives that range from the predictable to the delightfully quirky. The author includes quotes from writers he admires, including Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Evelyn Waugh and Robert Louis Stevenson. British men are particularly well-represented. Sections on "Travel in Brief" and "The Pleasures of Railways" quote substantially from Theroux's own work, and the final chapter, "The Essential Tao of Travel," a list of ten pieces of travel advice to live by, is surprisingly unimaginative, with suggestions like "Travel light" and "Keep a journal." Interspersed among this routine anthologizing, however, is a series of whimsical chapters that are often wonderfully playful—many readers may wish that Theroux had scrapped some of the quotations and included more of these sections. Equally engaging are the author's brief rumination on disgusting meals and how they tasted and his quick peek into the lives of the spouses, friends and lovers who went along for the ride as largely invisible sidekicks on some of history's great travel adventures.
Alternatively pious and irreverent, this is an uneasy almanac of favorite quotes and advice for the would-be tourist that broadly features travel as a trope for personal enlightenment.
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.
The Importance of Elsewhere
As a child, yearning to leave home and go far away, the image in my
mind was of flight — my little self hurrying off alone. The word “travel”
did not occur to me, nor did the word “transformation,” which was my
unspoken but enduring wish. I wanted to find a new self in a distant
place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was
something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be. Too
young to go, I read about elsewheres, fantasizing about my freedom.
Books were my road. And then, when I was old enough to go, the roads
I traveled became the obsessive subject in my own books. Eventually I
saw that the most passionate travelers have always also been passionate
readers and writers. And that is how this book came about.
The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire
to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances
of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience
an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown, to bear witness to the consequences,
tragic or comic, of people possessed by the narcissism of minor
differences. Chekhov said, “If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.”
I would say, if you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t travel. The literature of
travel shows the effects of solitude, sometimes mournful, more often enriching,
now and then unexpectedly spiritual.
All my traveling life I have been asked the maddening and oversimplifying
question “What is your favorite travel book?” How to answer it? I
have been on the road for almost fifty years and writing about my travels
for more than forty years. One of the first books my father read to me
at bedtime when I was small was Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in
Maine. This 1930s as-told-to account described how a twelve-year-old
boy survived eight days on Mount Katahdin. Donn suffered, but he made
it out of the Maine woods. The book taught me lessons in wilderness
survival, including the basic one: “Always follow a river or a creek in the
direction the water is flowing.” I have read many travel books since, and
I have made journeys on every continent except Antarctica, which I have
recounted in eight books and hundreds of essays. I have felt renewed
inspiration in the thought of little Donn making it safely down the high
The travel narrative is the oldest in the world, the story the wanderer
tells to the folk gathered around the fire after his or her return from a
journey. “This is what I saw” — news from the wider world; the odd, the
strange, the shocking, tales of beasts or of other people. “They’re just
like us!” or “They’re not like us at all!” The traveler’s tale is always in the
nature of a report. And it is the origin of narrative fiction too, the traveler
enlivening a dozing group with invented details, embroidering on experience.
It’s how the first novel in English got written. Daniel Defoe based
Robinson Crusoe on the actual experience of the castaway Alexander Selkirk,
though he enlarged the story, turning Selkirk’s four and a half years
on a remote Pacific Island into twenty-eight years on a Caribbean island,
adding Friday, the cannibals, and tropical exotica.
The storyteller’s intention is always to hold the listener with a glittering
eye and riveting tale. I think of the travel writer as idealized in the
lines of the ghost of Hamlet’s father at the beginning of the play:
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
But most are anecdotal, amusing, instructional, farcical, boastful,
mock-heroic, occasionally hair-raising, warnings to the curious, or else
they ring bells like mad and seem familiar. At their best, they are examples
of what is most human in travel.
In the course of my wandering life, travel has changed, not only in
speed and efficiency, but because of the altered circumstances of the
world — much of it connected and known. This conceit of Internetinspired
omniscience has produced the arrogant delusion that the physical
effort of travel is superfluous. Yet there are many parts of the world
that are little known and worth visiting, and there was a time in my traveling
when some parts of the earth offered any traveler the Columbus or
Crusoe thrill of discovery.
As an adult traveling alone in remote and cut-off places, I learned a
great deal about the world and myself: the strangeness, the joy, the liberation
and truth of travel, the way loneliness — such a trial at home — is
the condition of a traveler. But in travel, as Philip Larkin says in his poem
“The Importance of Elsewhere,” strangeness makes sense.
Travel in dreams, for Freud, symbolized death. That the journey — an
essay into the unknown — can be risky, even fatal, was a natural conclusion
for Freud to reach, since he suffered from self-diagnosed Reiseangst,
travel anxiety. He was so fearful of missing a train that he appeared at
railway stations two hours ahead of time, and when the train appeared at
the platform he usually panicked. He wrote in Introductory Lectures on
Psycho-Analysis, “Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train
This has not been my experience; I associate my happiest traveling
days with sitting on trains. Some travel is more of a nuisance than a
hardship, but travel is always a mental challenge, and even at its most
difficult, travel can be an enlightenment.
The joy of travel, and reading about it, is the theme of this collection —
and perhaps the misery too; but even remembered misery can produce
lyrical nostalgia. As I was rereading some of the books quoted here I
realized how dated they were, and how important as historical documents
— the dramas as well as the romance of an earlier time. Yet a lot of
the old-fangledness of travel ended very recently.
This book of insights, a distillation of travelers’ visions and pleasures,
observations from my work and others’, is based on many decades of
my reading travel books and traveling the earth. It is also intended as a
guidebook, a how-to, a miscellany, a vade mecum, a reading list, a reminiscence.
And because the notion of travel is often a metaphor for living
a life, many travelers, expressing a simple notion of a trip, have written
something accidentally philosophical, even metaphysical. In the spirit of
Buddha’s dictum “You cannot travel the path before you have become the
path itself,” I hope that this collection shows, in its approaches to travel,
ways of living and thinking too.
Preface: The Importance of Elsewhere ix
1. Travel in Brief 1
2. The Navel of the World 23
3. The Pleasures of Railways 26
Travel Wisdom of Henry Fielding 39
4. Murphy’s Rules of Travel 41
5. Travelers on Their Own Books 47
6. How Long Did the Traveler Spend Traveling? 55
Travel Wisdom of Samuel Johnson 75
7. The Things That They Carried 78
8. Fears, Neuroses, and Other Conditions 85
9. Travelers Who Never Went Alone 93
Travel Wisdom of Sir Francis Galton 105
10. Travel as an Ordeal 108
11. English Travelers on Escaping England 117
12. When You’re Strange 121
Travel Wisdom of Robert Louis Stevenson 127
13. It Is Solved by Walking 130
14. Travel Feats 147
15. Staying Home 158
Travel Wisdom of Freya Stark 167
16. Imaginary Journeys 171
17. Everything Is Edible Somewhere 181
18. Rosenblum’s Rules of Reporting 198
Travel Wisdom of Claude Lévi-Strauss 201
19. Perverse Pleasures of the Inhospitable 203
20. Imaginary People 210
21. Writers and the Places They Never Visited 215
Travel Wisdom of Evelyn Waugh 231
22. Travelers’ Bliss 234
23. Classics of a Sense of Place 238
24. Evocative Name, Disappointing Place 256
Travel Wisdom of Paul Bowles 259
25. Dangerous, Happy, Alluring 262
26. Five Travel Epiphanies 271
27. The Essential Tao of Travel 275
Index of People and Places 279
Posted January 22, 2012
When I learned that Paul Theroux, one of my favorite travel writers, had written the Tao of Travel I rushed to get a copy. At first I was disappointed that Theroux would waste his considerable talent on a compilation of other travel writers of note. But, as I got into his very personal critiques and reflections on the greats like Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry David Thoreau, Sir Richard Burton and Joseph Conrad I looked forward to eaves dropping on the “long conversation” about travel writers. Theroux talks about the little known realities of some of the greats. Edgar Rice Burroughs who created the Tarzan character had never been to Africa. Steinbeck did travel with his dog Charlie for three months, but he who also indulged in conjugal visits from his wife along the way. The book reads like a tabloid reality check on “who’s who” in the travel writing genre. Theroux also talks about the paradoxes of travel, the wisdom of travel and its perverse pleasures. As usual, Theroux pulls no punches in his discussion of his peers or precursors. I confess in the end I enjoyed what felt like ”Happy Hour with Paul” even though he slandered my home town, Los Angeles, lumping it in with Bombay and Tokyo “which are known for their ugly buildings and bad air.”
Linda Ballou Author of Lost Angel Walkabout-On Traveler’s Tales
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