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The Tao of Travel

by Paul Theroux

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The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux
© Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

There is no better time to read and review a book about travel than while one is traveling. To that end, it was my pleasure to read Paul Theroux's (The Great Railway Bazaar) latest travel book, The Tao of Travel, while on an overnight flight to Addis Ababa and then to the Mount Kilimanjaro airport.

While I read The Tao of Travel at one sitting, there being no other place to be while confined within an airplane with 4,238 screaming, crying, bouncing children, it is not a book that requires a straight-through read. Rather, one should skip about as one fancies, picking plums hither and yon. The subtitle is "Enlightenments from Lives on the Road" and there are many enlightening pieces within.

Theroux quotes far and wide from traveling writers. He includes his work and that of Mark Twain, Hemingway, Ibn Battuta, Sir Richard Burton, Freya Stark, Thoreau, and Samuel Johnson among a host of others familiar and not. Theroux divides this guidebook into twenty-seven short chapters, each group of 3 chapters being introduced by a section entitled "Travel Wisdom of..." The wisdom comes from writers that include Henry Fielding, Sir Francis Galton, Freya Stark, and Claude Levi-Strauss.
Through these writers we learn the most dangerous, happy, or alluring places (Newark, Thailand, Timor). We learn which writers wrote about places they never visited (Edgar Rice Burroughs). We discover which places sound wonderful but are not (Timbuktu). We also learn how little time some writers spent in a locale before writing about it (Thoreau, 6 or 7 weeks in Maine).

The section on strange foods conjured my days in survival school where I learned all those years ago, that the stomach will eat what one can get past one's mind. Nevertheless, some of these take some getting used to: maggot cheese, chicken anus, bull's testicles, duck embryo, and caterpillar fungus are some of the delicacies mentioned here. I read this section after a surprisingly good meal on the plane.

Theroux gets it exactly right in the Preface when he writes that "The joy of travel, and reading about it, is the theme of this collection — and perhaps the misery too." He goes on to say that the travel narrative is the oldest in the world. He grew out of that first traveler who sat around the fire and told his fellows of the "world" he had seen just beyond the usual hunting grounds. We have not stopped talking and writing about our travels in the thousands of years since.
Perhaps we have learned more and become more sophisticated. Samuel Johnson wrote, "In traveling, one must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge. Mark Twain said it best, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts."

Theroux presents the reader with an entertaining and insightful journey through time. It is a book to come back to time after time. The writers quoted have already stood the test of time, and they will continue to be read.

Finally, Theroux presents his 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 had no relation to the place you're in; if you must bring a cell phone, avoid using it; make a friend.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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