Friday, October 3, 2014

Around the world with Paul Theroux

"The conversation, like many others I had with people on trains, derived an easy candour from the shared journey, the comfort of the dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again."—Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

“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.”―Theroux, The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road

I gobbled The Tao of Travel down like a box of bon bons, hoping to share some of its best bits with you. Guess what―it quickly sold out. Argh. But I can still pass on some of my favorites, and point you to other tomes by this inveterate traveler and inimitable chronicler. The Lower River  is a novel on Africa (one of his favorite destinations); The Last Train to Zona Verde is a travel book on a 2500-mile solo trip he took through the western part of the continent, and a A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta is an atmospheric mystery set in India.
Illustration from The Tao of Travel
Despite the fact that Theroux told The Atlantic, in an interview on The Tao of Travel, that "blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling," here are some choice gleanings from his compendium.
British author Fanny Trollope renamed Cincinnati "Porkopolis" because of the pigs in the street. She characterized her travel book, The Domestic Manners of Americans as "six hundred pages of griffonage [scribblings]." She might have dubbed it "A Nation of Spitters" for the rampant and repulsive habit to which she frequently alludes. In any event, the book was admired by America's own Mark Twain, himself no mean globe trotter.
American Henry James, who lived in Europe, apparently traveled from spa to spa to obtain relief from what Theroux describes as “an almost constant state of constipation.” (His prolix prose certainly wasn't!)
Who is this fella? "He rambled on the Continent, criss-crossed the United States, sailed across the Pacific, and ended up in Samoa, where he is buried." Answer: Robert Louis Stevenson
Among what I would call the pseudo travelers are D. H. Lawrence, who spent a mere week in Sardinia, but used 355 pages to tell about it in his book, Sea and Sardinia. Graham Greene's 18 days in Liberia produced Journey Without Maps. Rudyard Kipling (left) never even went to Mandalay, the subject of his famous poem, although he did spend a few hours in Rangoon.
In his excellent chapter on walking, Theroux points out that the Chinese characters for pilgrimage mean "paying one's respect to the mountain.... Many Taoists make a point of visiting the five holy mountains they regard as pillars of China, the cardinal compass points as well as the center, separating heaven and earth."
Among the intrepid traveler/adventurers Theroux cites are Ffyona Campbell (left), who walked the length of Great Britain at age 16 (she later perambulated across the U.S., Africa, and Australia); Göran Kropp, a Swede who biked to and from Sweden to Nepal, climbing Mt. Everest in between; Aimé Tschiffely, a Swiss who rode on horseback from Buenos Aires to New York; and Gerard d'Aboville, who traversed the Pacific Ocean, from Japan to Oregon, in a rowboat (he had previously crossed the Atlantic, from Cape Cod to Brittany). Questioned about his motivation, d'Aboville replied: "Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful—not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do."
I'll close with a quote from one of the greatest travel writers of all time: Freya Stark (above and below, 1893–1993), to whom Theroux devotes an entire chapter:

"One can only  really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one's own and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism."—Riding to the Tigris

Click here for our latest offerings in travel writing, including Travel & Adventure: Short Stories by Great Writers, The Best American Travel Writing, Photographic Travel, and The Mammoth Book of Travel in Dangerous Places: First-Hand Accounts of Exploration by David Livingstone, James Cook, Meriwether Lewis, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Sir Edmund Hilary, and Many Others.


  1. gioconda toad-in-the-holeOctober 5, 2014 at 4:52 PM

    I just purchased from Daedalus the rather limply-titled "Departures and Arrivals" by Eric Newby.
    I think one reads armchair travel books for the following reasons:
    a-) To uncover those little secrets the glossy brochures don't tell you--like the soot on the dinner tables on the Orient Express, or the fact there's no food at all between Trieste and Turkey.
    b-) To learn about places one would never go--like the opal mines of Australia, where people live in a hole in the ground.
    c-) To gather those tidbits of info that pass for knowledge in casual conversation--An elephant, if it wishes,can fill a cavity which is separated from its stomach, and which holds 10 gallons of water, and bring it back up through its trunk and give itself a shower on land.
    Well, it looks like Newby's got it covered. And I haven't finished reading it yet.
    The nicest thing about a travel book is when it leaves you grateful to wake up in your own bed!

  2. This book contains mostly of passages and quotes from other books about traveling and not so much of Paul Theroux's. It's a great reference book. Freya Stark, Dervla Murphy - travel authors I must read!
    Read the Tao of Travel slowly and in smaller bits! Come back to it for inspiration to further travel reading!

  3. I love reading books on travel. My first wish always is to grab a travel book and I read with a hope that I will come across something which has been missed while googling it. This is a good book. It does have hidden tips and above all it has the best of The Tao of Travel. Thank you for the share.