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Review: The Tao of Travel

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

The list of famous travel writers is short  — and often seems dominated by wanderlusting Brits. There’s Sir Wilfred Thesiger, desert rat, and Lawrence Durrell, haunter of Mediterranean places. There are Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell, fearless collectors of oases and ancient civilizations. There is the long-distance walker and memoirist Patrick Leigh Fermor — and, closer to our time, Bruce Chatwin (Patagonia, the Outback) and Colin Thubron (Tibet, Siberia, the Silk Road).

Joining that heady company is Paul Theroux, American but resident in England long enough to qualify as British-ish. The best-known travel writer at work today, Theroux burst on the scene with the 1975 publication of The Great Railway Bazaar, which chronicled his four-month train crossing of Asia. His next book of travel, The Old Patagonian Express (1979), was also by rail, this one the length of South America. Various modes of transport took him up and down Britain’s byways in The Kingdom by the Sea (1983). He paddled around the South Seas in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) and returned to Europe in The Pillars of Hercules (1995). Paul Theroux has also popped up in China, Africa, and even the United States, all the while writing a novel or two for every book of nonfiction he produces.

Read those travel books and a revealing portrait of Theroux emerges: He is without trepidation, yet he lacks the derring-do of a Chatwin or a Jon Krakauer. He likes his creature comforts but is not fussy about them — a good thing, considering the rough-and-tumble places into which he often ventures. He (famously) does not suffer fools gladly. And on just about every trip he packs a satchel-bursting pile of books.

Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading Theroux is catching up on whom he is reading in turn: Is it the acerbic Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, master of labyrinthine travels? The mysterious Orientalist Charles Montagu Doughty, chronicler of the Bedouin camps of Arabia? Or his lifelong frenemy, V. S. Naipaul, a familiar of Africa, India, the Caribbean, and so many other Therouvian destinations? The reading list stretches over the horizon.

When he hasn’t been gazing out a train window, in other words, Paul Theroux has been looking into whole libraries. Thus his latest book, The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road, a neat hybrid of commonplace book, memoir and anthology of his own work and that of other travelers. In it Theroux stakes a claim for the fact that travel, done right, is jolly hard work. (Not for nothing is “travel” a cognate of “travail” — nor is it coincidence that both words derive from an ancient instrument of torture, the tripalium.)

And what does one do in the face of that hard work, and even danger? Well, Theroux suggests, one must be of stout heart — or better yet, cheerfully prepared: “Optimists don’t believe in disasters until they happen, and therefore are not fearful, which is the opposite of being brave.”

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.