Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review: Paul Theroux - "The Tao of Travel"

Paul Theroux likes to travel alone. Not just on your average vacation, but on lengthy, continent-spanning trips. He has a disgust for tourists and a lot of the people he meets along the way. And while many travel books do their best to paint every foreign country in a positive, semi-exotic light, Theroux holds no punches; if he doesn't like a city, he's going to lay out exactly what he doesn't like about it. 

Such an attitude can be (and has been) mistaken for misanthropy. But while Theroux's writing can be barbed, dismissive, pessimistic and overly critical, his keen eye for detail, love of traveling, and occasional moment of bliss are what prevents his books from descending into pure vitriol. And Theroux is just as critical of himself as he is of his fellow travels and destinations. Much of the time he struggles with paradox of travel writing - how to accurately describe your own experience in a location without devolving into narcissism. 

This strange combination of cynicism and persistent curiosity is what makes Theroux one of my favorite travel writers. And because he's been writing accounts of his travels for the past thirty-five years, there's a lot of books to choose from, though this can be intimidating to the newcomer. Theroux's latest book then, The Tao of Travel, can be seen as both an introduction to the man's work, as well as a summary of his career as a travel writer. 

The Tao of Travel is not one of Theroux's typical "choose a continent and write about it" kind of book. Instead, the book can function more as an armchair explorer's guide to the wealth of travel literature out there. Theroux picks his favorite passages and anecdotes from travel writers as varied as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Henry Fielding, Richard Burton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and he also includes a few passages from his own books.

This could be a quick cash grab by one of the industry's more prominent travel writers, and at first I worried about the concept of the book. Luckily, Theroux proves himself as adept as navigating the canon of travel literature as he is at traveling around the world; instead of being a coffee table book of pithy, meaningless quotations, The Tao of Travel does offer a slightly meatier glimpse into the one of the oldest literary genres. 

The book is divided into chapters by theme, some inspiring, some humorous. Theroux examines the most adventurous travelers, the longest trips, the best complaints, as well as stopping to take a close look at some of his personal favorite authors. The quotes and passages are all well-chosen, many of them framed by an essay by Theroux himself, elaborating on a certain aspect of travel or explaining what is so interesting about a certain excerpt. 

Of course, this is Theroux, and so the reader can expect to find a little bit of crankiness. Theroux has always emphasized the importance of traveling alone and disappearing for months at a time, but in this book he seems to be complaining about cell phones and the Internet a little bit more than usual. It's clear that certain kinds of travel narratives appeal to him more than others; if the author in question is not a solitary loner who likes trains, one is unlikely to see him or her quoted in these pages. 

Still, what is featured is exhilarating and only served to give me a list of dozens of authors who I now want to read. Theroux is one of the best travel writers out there, partially because he has such a good knowledge of the genre, and has put a lot of time into reflecting on what makes a good travel narrative. In discussing his favorite writers and quoting their passages in his book, Theroux is making the case for a Who's Who of travel literature, a canon of writers worth reading. He quotes one memorable passage by David Livingstone: "I think I would rather cross the African continent again than write another book. It is far easier to travel than to write about it." Theroux doesn't want travel to merely be the document of landmarks or a description of cities; he appreciates the writers who struggle over how to describe what they have seen, and how to add a personal touch to what can easily be a mere chronology of arrivals and departures. 

The strangest part of The Tao of Travel is Theroux's inclusion of some of his own works. While the quotes he draws from other writers are thought-provoking and pertinent to his chosen themes, when Theroux selects passages from his own previously published books, it seems a bit more forced and a little bit like showing off. I can't argue that Theroux doesn't belong in the ranks of the other authors he includes, but it still leaves a bit of a sour taste in the reader's mouth to see self-quotations within this text. 

The Tao of Travel is an unorthodox book, and it's unclear what exactly it is trying to achieve. This is not a bad thing. Theroux has given us a book that is part travel bible, part how-to guide for writing travel books, part retrospective on his own career, and part strong case for the variety and wit inherent in the genre. Perhaps The Tao of Travel is not a book to be devoured in one sitting, but any travel aficionado will enjoy browsing through the book on the next train ride. In a pinch, it can even give the staycationer a chance to experience the thrill of travel from one's own house, which is the best any travel book can do. 

A review copy of The Tao of Travel was provided to the reviewer through the NetGalley project.