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Review: The Tao of Travel

Paul Theroux gathers the scribblings of some favorite travel writers (among them: Paul Theroux)

It helps to know something about where you’re going, too; Theroux approvingly quotes Samuel Johnson, who wrote, “In traveling, a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.” (If that commodity is not part of your baggage, the author-editor might add, at least pack a map—and, of course, a stack of books for companionship and diversion.)

Adventures, Theroux counsels, need not involve the possibility of doing oneself harm. They needn’t entail scaling Everest — nor even require much time away from home. After all, he points out, D. H. Lawrence “spent ten days with his wife in Sardinia and wrote a lengthy book about it,” while Rudyard Kipling tarried only “a few hours” in Rangoon — and never visited Mandalay at all, despite the fame his ballad of that name brought him.

If travel needn’t be lengthy, neither must it be the lonely, soul-sapping experience so many writers have declared it. Theroux delights in outing authors who claim to have journeyed solo but in fact took friends and family along. Among them are Edward Abbey (who perhaps should have retitled Desert Solitaire) and John Steinbeck (whose Travels with Charley had plenty of poodle but failed to mention the near-constant presence on that trip of the Nobelist’s wife, Elaine).

But so it is: Travelers, as Walt Whitman would have it, are vast and contain multitudes — multitudes of stories, that is, many of them not quite true. (The reader may even be forgiven for suspecting a few of Theroux’s own yarns — but then, travel tales and fish stories are kindred genres.) To embroidery add diversity, for one voyager’s staff is another’s chaff: Ernest Hemingway returned with glowing tales of Biarritz — a place that, Theroux enlightens us, is “a crowded French city of cement bungalows, labyrinthine roads, mediocre restaurants, and a stony beach of cold and dangerous surf.”

If you’ve been scouring the globe for a lively, idiosyncratic meditation on journeys, pay The Tao of Travel a visit. It may inspire you to wanderings of your own — with The Tao and a passel of other tomes in tow, of course.

Gregory McNamee, the author of Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals, is a frequent traveler and sometime travel writer. Click here to read his recent profile of great U.S. hiking trails and walking paths.

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