Uncommon Journey — The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road by Paul Theroux

The Tao of Travel

The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road
BY Paul Theroux
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)


From the Publisher:

“Paul Theroux celebrates fifty years of wandering the globe by collecting the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him, as a reader and a traveler. Part philosophical guide, part miscellany, part reminiscence, The Tao of Travel enumerates ‘The Contents of Some Travelers’ Bags’ and exposes ‘Writers Who Wrote about Places They Never Visited’; tracks extreme journeys in ‘Travel as an Ordeal’ and highlights some of ‘Travelers’ Favorite Places.’ Excerpts from the best of Theroux’s own work are interspersed with selections from travelers both familiar and unexpected.”

If the thought of a leisurely rail journey has lost its luster, so has the appeal of a commonplace book. For many centuries, readers kept them as a repository of quotations, interesting facts, reflections on topics of personal interest. In “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet,” Jonathan Swift recommended keeping a “record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation… not only your own original thoughts… but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”

The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road by Paul Theroux is clearly a commonplace book of travel and travel writing by a deeply reflective thinker, making such words into his own. If the genre can be acknowledged as providing a meaningful intellectual and moral portrait of its author, rather than being merely an anthology of interesting quotations, various complaints about the book — that it is too much “Theroux,” it is uneven — vanish. The book succeeds then as its admirers claim.

Theroux suggests his book is a good vade-mecum for contemporary travelers, but only for those who share the premise that travel can be a useful metaphor for life. And that’s travel, not tourism or vacationing…

A prolific author and well-known personality, Theroux is often described as “grumpy.” In these pages, he revels in others’ idiosyncrasies and even duplicity, frequently choosing outrageous stories and perspectives, but his own grumpiness seems more intransigence of perspective, generously and energetically brought to bear on a topic, dear to his heart. In other words, not grumpy, but singular. Quoting from his own Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008), he writes: “Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life” (p. 9).

In keeping with its decorous subject, The Tao of Travel is handsome: brown bonded leather with gold lettering, flexible with a sewn-in elastic place-marker, a near facsimile of what might be found in the hands of a passenger enjoying a great rail journey from the past. Theroux suggests his book is a good vade-mecum for contemporary travelers, but only for those who share the premise that travel can be a useful metaphor for life. And that’s travel, not tourism or vacationing, a distinction he is quick to make.

The 285-page book is elaborately organized with a preface, twenty-seven chapters on various quirky, but interesting topics (“The Pleasures of Railways;” “Travelers on Their Own Books;” “Travelers Who Never Went Alone;” “English Travelers on Escaping England;” “Everything Is Edible Somewhere;” “Perverse Pleasures of the Inhospitable;” “Evocative Name, Disappointing Place;” “Dangerous, Happy, Alluring”). These miscellanies are then interspersed with extended excerpts of “Travel Wisdom” from eight authors, including Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Sir Francis Galton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Freya Stark (a welcome woman!), Claude Lévi-Strauss, Evelyn Waugh, and Paul Bowles. The chapters consist of lists, summaries, commentary, a delightful mixture of formats to accompany the widely ranging sources. It never gets repetitive. There is also an index of people and places, useful because Theroux’ favorite authors often show up in multiple chapters. Many of the authors referenced were new to me, making the book more a starting point for interesting perspectives in travel literature than a final word.


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