Monday, September 23, 2013

The Tao of travel: Enlightenments from lives on the road

By Paul Theroux
Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

The old proverb reads that you can’t judge a book by its cover; however, the publishers of Paul Theroux’s book, have attempted to make readers believe that proverb holds no water. I have reviewed over 100 books for And Then Some Publishing LLC, and I have reviewed over 100 books under my own name, and I have not yet been able to say this about any previous books I’ve reviewed: I love the look and feel of this book. I am a very tactile person. Bound in leather, inscribed in gold, with pages that are rounded at the corners (instead of rectangular — squared-off), and with a brown elastic band embedded on the back cover that can be pulled around the book as a bookmark, I enjoyed holding this book. (It’s the same way I feel about reading a book on a screen; I would rather hold the book in my hands. This one enhances that experience ten-fold!)

Then you turn to the front and back pages and you have "A New and Accurat [sic] Map of the World" — the two halves of the world spread out so you can see the entire world in earth-tone colors printed on "parchment." Around the hemispheres is located eight ancient pictures of "The Heavens and Elements." It is a truly delightful book that you will not just enjoy having in your permanent library, but you will like bringing it out to show family and friends. It is an all-encompassing aesthetic pleasure!

I have the same picture as the one inside the front and back of this book in gold, framed in a narrow gold frame with black matting on my study wall just over my desk, and I have the opportunity to look at it every day. For me, it exists on my wall for the very same purpose Theroux (or his publishers) chose to use it twice in the book — that the world offers no boundaries for the avid traveler.

One of the reasons I picked up this book was to get some tips ("enlightenments") from travel writers. I am a travel writer myself — although by no means exclusively — and I am always in search of ways to improve my craft. I have written the book Exotic Destinations . . . And Then Some! Stories of Adventures from Around the World (Perrysburg, OH: And Then Some Publishing LLC, 2011). Whenever I take a trip, I take Theroux’s advice, "Keep a Journal" (p. 275), and it is from those journal entries that I compose the travel essays collected on my blog at

As I began reading The Tao of Travel I was disappointed. I haven’t read any of Theroux’s other works, but from the excerpts published here, it is clear that he is an outstanding writer. I wanted more of him and less of all the other excerpts. Even from the title of this book, I did not know exactly what it was about or how it was put together when I first picked it up. It turns out that the subtitle is an excellent description.

But I did not give up or throw in the towel, and as I kept reading, I enjoyed it more and more. Perhaps it was just becoming accustomed to the form of the book. Also, I’m certain, it was reading some excellent entries.

Chapter 3, "The Pleasures of Railways," reminded me of our family’s 3-day trip on a train across the Nullabor Plain in Australia. Theroux’s observation, "The soothing and unstressful trip leaves deep impressions of the passing scene, and of the train itself" (p. 26). How accurate! Our trip was outstanding and memorable because the sights from the train windows offered nothing (Nullabor = no trees!) to distract from the pleasures of interacting with train personnel, Australian travelers, and our own family members.

In Chapter 4, "Murphy’s Rules of Travel," I found a potential "Consider This" box for the eleventh edition of my book, Communicating Effectively (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Theroux excerpts Dervla Murphy, and when she talks about "Don’t be inhibited by the language barrier," she suggests that "ignorance of the local language thwarts exchanges of ideas, [but it is] unimportant on a practical level . . . — {to satisfy the basic needs of] sleeping, eating, [and] drinking" (p. 45) — great advice to encourage students who read my textbook to travel widely.

"Travelers on Their Own Books," the title of Chapter 5, spoke directly to my own concerns and my travel book. Theroux writes, "The writing of a travel book is, like the trip itself, a conscious decision, requiring a gift for description, an ear for dialogue, a great deal of patience, and the stomach for retracing one’s steps" (p. 47). It is the excerpt from "Paul Bowles: ‘The Conflict Between Writer and Place,’" that struck me as most relevant, "What is a travel book? For me it is the story of what happened to one person in a particular place, and nothing more than that; it does not contain hotel and highway information, lists ofr useful phrases, statistics, or hints as to what kind of clothing is to be needed by the intending visitor" (53) He continued by saying, a moment later, " . . . there is nothing I enjoy more than reading an accurate account by an intelligent writer of what happened to him away from home" (p. 53). And that is precisely what I enjoy supplying!

Chapter 10, "Travel as an Ordeal," made me thankful that I (or other members of my family) have never undertaken trips nor excursions that would fit this description, but reading about the trails and travails of others was, indeed, thrilling. The writers Theroux chose to excerpt were superb. It is hard to believe that Theroux, as the compiler of this volume, has such a command of a wide variety of other travel writings. That, alone, is something to marvel at.

Well, there is so much in this book. I loved the entry on Thoreau’s "Walking," on sixteen-year-old, Jessica Watson’s 24,000-mile, solo, non-stop, unassisted sail around the world, Emily Dickinson’s argument for staying home (we lived in Amherst, Massachusetts — her home — for six years), and Theroux’s "travel epiphanies," and so much more.

I have to say, as an active traveler, this book triggered so many great memories, brought back an enormous number of experiences, and made me appreciate even more, the wonderful work of so many great travel writers.


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