This collection is the exact opposite of Theroux’s other travel writing. Usually he goes abroad and writes about novels. This time he stays at home and writes about travel books. It works. Whether you’re a fan of Theroux or not – and this reviewer is not – read on. The beauty of this book is that you don’t have to machete your way through thickets of Therouxvian prose to get to the goldmine. The wisdom of his dozen travel books is handily distilled into a series of well-picked quotes. The rest of it is about other travel writers.
Theroux has always been a great critic and a wide reader. Here he revisits favourite authors, as well as finding fresh voices. Ranged under ingenious headings such as ‘The Things That They Carried’, ‘Travelers Who Never Went Alone’, and ‘Fears, Neuroses and Other Conditions’, the choices are inspired. Film director Werner Herzog is there, in the chapter ‘It Is Solved by Walking’, because he once walked from Munich to Paris in a straight line, through slums and motorways and garbage dumps. So is Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, who said that ‘I can write better about places I’ve never seen than those that I have’. Gérard d’Aboville rowed boats alone across the Pacific and the Atlantic. Henry Miller advised travelling with a monkey wrench. Much of the book is quotes, but more of it is Theroux’s shrewd assessments of the writers and their work. The strong voice makes it far better than an anthology or a miscellany, which are often difficult to read.
Conventional travel writers are also discussed – Chatwin, Iyer, Newby, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Jan Morris, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Bowles, Dervla Murphy and many, many more. V.S. Naipaul, Theroux’s old sparring partner, gets several not entirely sympathetic passages, although Bill Bryson, who has been known to have the occasional good-humoured dig at his fellow American, makes no appearance. Nor does William Dalrymple, in what must be a world first. To be fair, just about everyone has heard of these superstars, and one purpose of the book must be as a guide for travel readers. Its appeal is in its gift of the unexpected. A bit like travel.
The book begins with the observation that ‘The travel narrative is the oldest in the world’, and ends with ‘The Essential Tao of Travel. 1. Leave home. 2. Go alone. 3. Travel light. 4. Bring a map. 5. Go by land. 6. Walk across a national frontier. 7. Keep a journal. 8. Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in. 9. If you must bring a cell phone, avoid using it. 10. Make a friend.’ If his list went to 11 Theroux might have added, take The Tao of Travel.