[Houghton Mifflin Harcour; 2011]
Review by Anna-Claire Stinebring
At sixteen I traveled to England with my family, bringing an SAT workbook, a five pound dumbbell, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in my overstuffed suitcase. These self-improvement tools were, of course, a burden more than a resource throughout the trip. (They were also an endless source of consternation and amusement for my family.) The only useful item of this set was the novel, the lightest and most logical item. On a trip, even a great trip, escape is necessary, and an immersive book is the best medium.
The prolific travel writer Paul Theroux recommends bringing a good novel along with a good map—and otherwise packing light—in the latest edition to his oeuvre, The Tao of Travel. Part how-to and part philosophy, The Tao of Travel is a handsome and transportable book, with the dimensions and design of a Moleskine journal. Theroux has eight travel books to his name, and is also a voracious reader in the genre. The Tao of Travel is essentially a compilation of his favorite quotes—including many from his own books and essays—arranged in inventive chapters, each framed by an energetic introduction.
Chapters as wide-ranging as “Everything Is Edible Somewhere” and “Writers and the Places They Never Visited” are interspersed with interludes serving as (slightly) more in-depth explorations of the work of specific writers. These range from Samuel Johnson—a man of letters who rarely traveled—to Freya Stark, who traveled across the Middle East in the first half of the twentieth century, confronting with a wry wit the challenges of traveling as a woman.
The Tao of Travel’s cabinet-of-curiosities approach can be entertaining and winning, especially when the quotations and anecdotes veer towards the unexpected, even contradictory. Chapters like “Travelers Who Never Went Alone” and “Imaginary Journeys” challenge Theroux’s own travel mantra, laid out at the beginning of the book and recapped in the final chapter’s ten “The Essential Tao of Travel” tips, which begin: “1. Leave home; 2. Go alone.” Theroux’s advice is useful as it warns potential travelers away from complacency, but it can quickly become its own complacency, a tiresome dogma more than a “Tao.”
This phenomenon is most off-putting in the first sections of the book, when Theroux quotes most compulsively from his own writings. Chapter three, “The Pleasures of Railways,” is most indicative of the axiomatic tendency of The Tao of Travel. The introduction to the chapter declares “Every airplane trip is the same; every railway journey is different.” The chapter rushes to extol the advantages of train travel, from “never upsetting your drink” to an expedient experience of the “social miseries and scenic splendors of the continent.” This is in comparison to buses, which are “usually nasty,” with “bus stations the world over…dens of thieves.” When it comes down to it, the bus is simply not the most enlightened way of slumming it, in the world according to Theroux.
In the introduction to a later chapter, “Imaginary People,” Theroux quotes the critic Susan Sontag: “Books about travel to exotic places have always opposed an ‘us’ to a ‘them.’” The “them” to Theroux’s in-crowd of disciplined literary loners is the foolish tourist, who spends resources but skirts experience. The “traveler vs. tourist” question reoccurs again and again in the quotes Theroux has compiled. It is a meaningful discussion as it addresses a society’s tendency to devalue close observation, contemplation of the self, and an understanding of how to be alone. But by obsessing about the careless privileges of the tourist, such passages can forget to interrogate the intrepid traveler’s own prejudices and idealizations.
The Tao of Travel benefits from the range of what Theroux has read and seen, but the connections Theroux makes in the book often come off as breezy and superficial. “Every airplane trip is the same; every railway journey is different” echoes the opening lines of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but not meaningfully. After a dutiful plot summary of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, Theroux concludes that the novel is “Kafkaesque.” The conclusion that a traveling companion is “a consolation, and inevitably a distraction” seems unfair. Doesn’t it depend on the temperament of the traveler and the personality of the companion? Theroux presents traveling alone as the purest form of travel. More accurately, it is the purest way of accessing melancholy and memory while traveling, only one valuable way to travel.
Many of the quotes, from Mark Twain to Marco Polo, and from harrowingly real to richly imagined travel, reflect on the traveler as much as the place. Theroux articulates this phenomenon but does not push it further. While reading his book, I found myself wishing I were reading a rigorous, focused essay or a book by one of the quoted authors. The Tao of Travel is the perfect size and shape to throw into a backpack and go. Yet I suspect it would begin to feel like the dumbbell, not the immersive book a traveler longs for.