West on Books: A Review of “The Tao of Travel” by Paul Theroux
Reviewed by Richard West
Somewhere in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” Will Ladislaw airily posits that some places should remain unknown, “preserved as hunting grounds for the poetic imagination.” I don’t believe Paul Theroux got Will’s message. In the 50 years since he first spread his canvas to the gale, Theroux has been almost everywhere and turned his travels into thirteen non-fiction travel narratives. Oh yes, with the success of his first, “The Great Railway Bazaar (published in 1975), and those that followed, he became the father of modern American travel writing.
In his fourteenth travel book, “The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road,” Theroux gathers advice, wisdom, reminiscences, philosophy, and miscellany from his own books and those of previous great travelers. He begins with his own echolalia, wise, hard-earned counsel that defines authentic travel: “Luxury is the enemy of observation…tourists will believe almost anything as long as they are comfortable…my ideal of travel is just show up and head for the bush…a train journey is travel; everything else—planes especially—is transfer.”
Subsequent chapters gather travel wisdom from legendary wanderers like Dervla Murphy, Samuel Johnson, Evelyn Waugh, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor. The great Victorian traveler, Sir Francis Galton, in his “The Art of Travel” advises us on sleeve-rolling: “Sleeves must be rolled inwards, toward the arm, not the reverse way.” Ms. Murphy suggests learning as much as possible about religious and social taboos, then respect them. Robert Louis Stevenson sighs, “Sightseeing is the art of disappointment.” Oddly, Theroux’s book doesn’t mention England’s Colin Thubron, arguably the greatest living travel writer, or anything from the luminous younger Theroux’s: Tim Mackintosh-Smith, William Dalrymple, or John Gimlette.
Theroux fans will delight in his final chapters in which he reveals his miss or hit parade: the top 10 dangerous places (Port Moresby, Newark, downtown Nairobi, post soccer match England); top 10 happy places (Bali, Orkney Islands, Costa Rica); alluring places (Greenland, Angola, Timor), and his Five Travel Epiphanies. Finally his own Tao of Travel:
- Leave home.
- Go alone.
- Travel light.
- Bring a map.
- Go by land.
- Walk across a national frontier.
- Keep a journal.
- Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in.
- If you must bring a cell phone, avoid using it.
10. Make a friend.
To which I would only add: when you’re lost, follow a dog.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.