Book Review: The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

Becoming friends with Paul Theroux must be something like hunting a Siberian Tiger. Who can withstand such punishing cold, so many months of bonechilling loneliness through the bleak forest of his companionship? And then, who can handle the life-crushing possibility that at any moment the majestic beast might spring forth from the eerie stillness of the landscape and eviscerate one’s helpless soul, sheering limb from body with his flesh-rending prose?

So for someone who admires both his prolific literary career and heroic grumpiness, there can be perhaps no greater challenge. Which is why, now that I’ve fully disclosed my intentions, I am herewith reviewing his latest book, The Tao of Travel. The book is fantastic, and horrifying. Essentially, The Tao of Travel is a hodgepodge of quotes and two to three paragraph musings about aspects of travel and travel literature such as “Travel as an Ordeal” and “Everything is Edible Somewhere.” Theroux’s encyclopedic knowledge of world literature is on full display, and he performs a great service by discussing travel writers of lesser fame, often from previous centuries. To his further credit, he mostly eschews the well-known contemporary travel writers with which many readers are familiar.

But awkwardly, he sometimes brings up the same authors repeatedly without adding much new insight on them or their works. For example, he mentions Bruce Chatwin in five different chapters, in a couple of which he makes double appearances. This gives Theroux’s discussions a somewhat haphazard feel.

The structuring of the book comes quickly into question too. The first twenty pages are composed entirely of travel quotes divided into sections such as “Solitary Travel” and “Travel as a Waste of Time,” forcing the reader to wait before reaching actual new writing. But the really strange thing about the first section is that it’s about 90% Theroux quotes. There are stretches of several pages bereft of quotes from writers other than himself. If the entire section was only him, then we could relax and just accept that he’s a narcissist or masturbator who wanted to start the book by quoting himself for twenty pages. Instead, we’re left with the truly disturbing notion that he might actually believe only 10% of the best travel writing quotes ever written are not by him.

Deeper in, the reader encounters some genuinely engaging writing. Not only do we learn about obscure travel writers from eras past, but Theroux consistently proves his ability to sift through the fluff and reveal the truly captivating moments in other writers’ works, the same talent he uses to make sure there’s not a dull moment in his writing, although there must certainly have been dull moments in his travels.

Ironically, some of the most interesting reflections are when Theroux discusses anti-travel writers, like Henry David Thoreau. Theroux cites Thoreau’s criticism that travel yields only “a thin and diffused love and knowledge” and that “the traveler’s is but a barren and comfortless condition.” Theroux then blunts the attack by reminding us that Thoreau was proactively contrarian and curmudgeonly. (One can’t help wonder whether if the two somehow met they’d be the best of friends or the universe would implode.) And just when it seems like Theroux has set himself up to either launch a massive counterattack or offer some unholy concession, he settles for “it seems a stretch, but there it is,” and moves on to Emily Dickinson. This is what you get with The Tao of Travel: lots of interesting tidbits, nothing profound. It’s telling that the book’s most memorable lines are quotes from other authors or snippets from Theroux’s earlier works.

Another missed opportunity is Theroux’s apparent disinterest in discussing how any of these authors affected his own writing and career, which I’m sure many fans and, ahem, aspiring writers that form part of his readership would be interested to learn. Here we have another central irony of The Tao of Travel. For a book about travel literature, there’s surprisingly little reflection on how travel influences literature.

I met Paul Theroux once, although he doesn’t know it. Or, more honestly, after raptly watching him deliver a lecture, he signed one of my books and when he lifted his gaze onto me I cowered and ran.

Even so, the evening is among my fondest memories. As he addressed a packed auditorium, I marveled at how nonchalantly, how iconoclastically, he suddenly spoke in African languages totally foreign to my ear, often delightfully neglecting to translate. While summoning memories from far flung corners of the world and recounting his story of becoming a writer, I imagined the thousands of pages he’d written over the course of a lifetime springing from his head and filling the immense empty space above him in neat rows and columns. The phalanx of pages towered over the crowd, terrifying and mesmerizing. Then I imagined the few pages I’d so far written superimposed over his, covering only a pathetic corner. I saw it as a contest, a friendly provocation.

So I must ask: Paul, did you really want to reduce all your timeless travelogues to mere sound bites? Who twisted your arm? Why’d you let them? You’re Paul Theroux! I’d rather read about your experiences in the plush 5-star hotels you now stay at than have your work chopped into bite-sized mouthfuls. I feel like a baby bird whose mama just regurgitated a half-digested meal down its throat.

My recommendation is that fans should definitely buy the book and definitely give Theroux hell for pulling such a fast one. Think of The Tao of Travel as half excellent Paul Theroux desk reference, half shameless thievery.

Things could be worse. Our dear champion of the belief that the world is interesting and therefore worth exploring already has his success. He could withdraw into seclusion. He could leave us with no new narratives, no further dispatches to look forward to.

Don’t do it, Paul. Don’t do it, my friend.

Filed under: Book Review, Prose