If you are a writer and you love to travel, you can only envy Paul Theroux, who has had the luck and the wit to make his living as a travel writer, one whom we can now name among the finest such artists of all times. And the envy quadruples with the publication of his latest work, a travel book for all travelers. The Tao of Travel is created in imitation of an old-fashioned guidebook, in a flex-leather cover lettered in gold, complete with an elastic band for a place marker. The text makes use of an antique style typeface and is illustrated sparsely with black-and-white prints, all reminiscent of the sort of tome that, say, a character in a Forster novel might have taken with her on a long journey. This makes it an ideal gift for just about anyone, since it is as easy to be transported in your armchair as in a railway car or a donkey train. You can, as stay-at-home writer Henry David Thoreau suggested, "be a Columbus of whole new continents and worlds within you." And, as Pico Iyer points out, "every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country," and equally, every journey is a kind of love affair.
Full of quotations from famous and lesser-known travelers, the book reminds us that "the road is life" (Jack Kerouac) and that "the tourist is part of the landscape of our civilization" (V.S. Pritchard). The chapter headings enchant: "Perverse Pleasures of the Inhospitable," in which V.S. Naipaul expostulates on his disgust with India ("Not only must caste go, but all those sloppy Indian garments…"); "Everything is Edible Somewhere," a cook's tour of international cuisine as reported by travelers, including such delicacies as monkey eyes, seal flippers and bear feet; and "The Things That They Carried" (Henry Miller advised that all travelers bring along "a jack, a monkey wrench and a jimmy," while William Burroughs suggested "snake bite serum and a hammock").
Meant as both reminiscence and a handy how-to, Theroux's book plays homage to some of the authors who influenced him in his own quest to travel and live to tell the tales. Nearly all great travelers experience two paradoxical sensations: exalting bliss and painful loneliness. There is no pang as tender as "being strange" and far from home - as Theroux puts it, "a traveler has no power, no influence, no known identity." And there is no happiness comparable to that engendered by seeing moonrise and starlight in a foreign sky, a feeling that Freya Stark said made her feel "like dust in the lion's paw."
Naturally, Theroux quotes himself, with modest civility, having reached parity with such legendary travelers as Samuel Johnson ("Boswell: Is not the Giant’s Causeway worth seeing? Johnson: Worth seeing, yes, but not worth going to see") and Evelyn Waugh ("One does not travel, anymore than one falls in love, to collect material. It is simply part of one’s life.") It was Theroux who wrote, "Travel, its very motion, ought to suggest hope," and "For me the best sort of travel always involves a degree of trespass." It was also he who observed, "Any country which displays more than one statue of the same living politician is a country which is headed for trouble."
Theroux admits he was fortunate to have traveled in a time when "some parts of the earth offered the Columbus or Crusoe thrill of discovery." But he believes that now, even with the "conceit of Internet-inspired omniscience," a lonely traveler can still taste the joy of exploration, because, after all, every place is new to one who has not been there.
If you go, add The Tao of Travel to your backpack.