Friday, January 05, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #5: The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is the modern master of travel writing, at least as far as selling books in the US goes. (And I spent enough years in the book-publishing industry to take "getting people to spend money on books they like" as a serious metric.) But the problem with travel books, at least as Theroux does them, is that they take a long time: up to a year for the travel itself, plus time to write and publish afterward. For an industry that would really like to publish a book by Author X at the same time each year to the same or increasing sales, it can be a frustrating category.

But there are ways to extend a travel writer's brand. Eminent authors often, after a career of suitable length, turn to editing or compiling similar works, or to combining their old works into a mix-and-match, and often are successful in retaining a sizable fraction of their usual audiences for these secondary works. In the best cases, those assemblages can even be more productive than original works, as they introduce the main author's (presumably large) audience to other books they might like.

I don't know the behind-the-scenes wrangling that went into The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux's 2011 compilation of his favorite bits from other travel writers. But I suspect something like the scenario I sketched above had something to do with it. (Although I look slightly askance at the fact that Theroux gets credited as author rather than editor, when most of the words here are by other hands.)

This is not a book by Paul Theroux; there are words in here that he wrote, but those words serve to introduce and contextualize excerpts from other people's books about travel. The point here is to see what other people have written about the places they visited, and only secondarily what Theroux can tell us about those places and those writers -- though, in some cases, contextualizing is very important. For one blatant example, take Theroux's chapter about travelers who pretended they were alone when they actually had anything from a wife up to a full pack train accompanying them and taking care of the drudgery.

Theroux pulls out short chapters of quotes from some of his favorite writers in the genre -- Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Sir Francis Galton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Freya Stark, Claude Levi-Strauss, Evelyn Waugh, and Paul Bowles -- and intersperses those chapters among longer ones, each devoted to one aspect of travel writing. So he has chapters on what travelers brought with them, fear of travel, writers who spent inordinately long or short times abroad, various forms of travel (walking, trains), blissful journeys, horrible journeys, the books that crystallize a particular place, strange food, outrageous lies, and the inevitable chapter on writers who never went anywhere at all.

Each of those chapters has a Theroux intro, often giving us in miniature what the original authors will provide moments later, and then a series of quotes from other writers, sometimes as part of a general narrative with connecting tissue by Theroux and sometimes just a series of extended individual quotes. Everything is well-chosen and on topic, and Theroux is clearly very well-read.

So this is the kind of book that can send its reader scurrying to other books -- or, if they are a different kind of reader, scurrying to their travel agents to make plans to visit some of these places for themselves. Either way, it's successful in its aims, and what more can you ask?

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