Travel writing can be tedious in the wrong hands. Someone goes here or there, does this or that and tries to convince you to do the same. The focus of this type of writing is on the destination, when all good students of motivational-poster psychology know it’s the journey that really matters. It feels like a sales pitch.
But there are writers who understand and explore the difference between travel as a quest for knowledge and tourism as a form of consumption. Paul Theroux is one such writer, and his new book, The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments From Lives on the Road (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), is a handy guide for exploring the words and wisdom of many others.
Theroux is perhaps best known for his unflinching travelogues that don’t spare the details. “My first impression was of a place so ramshackle, so poor, so scary, so unexpectedly filthy, that I began to understand the theory behind culture shock,” he wrote of Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, in The Happy Isles of Oceania (Ballantine, 1993). Until I read that book, I naively assumed that all islands in the South Pacific looked like the one on which Gilligan landed.
But Tao is a handbook of collected wisdom from travelers throughout history, from the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang to contemporary ramblers such as Werner Herzog and Peter Matthiessen. Theroux includes chapters on how long travel writers were on the road—Marco Polo spent 26 years in China; D.H. Lawrence spent one week in Sardinia to write Sea and Sardinia—what they carried and with whom they traveled.
Some of the book’s observations are borderline upsetting. Henry David Thoreau may have gone to Walden to find solitude, but his cabin “was only a mile and a half from his house in Concord,” Theroux notes, “where his adoring mother waited, baking pies for him and doing his laundry; and throughout the Walden experience, he went home most days.”
The chapter on road food puts Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern in his place, citing passages about the Druze wolfing down raw meat, the Chinese custom of eating only dark-furred dogs and a simple recipe for Congolese monkey stew: “Take a dead monkey and hack it up. Keep the hands intact, but you can slice the rest of the carcass any way you want.”
It’s Theroux’s curation of the material that elevates Tao from an interesting collection of miscellany into a true vade mecum, a useful reference meant to be carried. For those who have always viewed travel as distinct from the hedonistic pleasures of tourism, it serves as a road map to the lives and exploits of writers throughout history who’ve had the same idea.