For five decades, writer Paul Theroux has read travel literature by the great and the little-known alike. Now he's compiled "The Tao of Travel," a marvelous anthology of classic travel writing, cherry-picking wisdom, anecdote and trivia from dozens of writers, from Edward Abbey to Rebecca West, and stirring in handfuls from his own works.
The result: a book for brave souls who want to go on the same arduous continent-crossing train journeys Theroux has taken, and for people who just like to read about crossing the Sahara or hacking a path through an Amazon jungle.
"The travel book that recounts an ordeal is the sort that interests me most, because it tests the elemental human qualities needed for survival: determination, calmness, rationality, physical and mental strength. Such books, with their torments, are also more fun," he writes.
With almost fiendish glee, he salutes Geoffrey Moorhouse's "The Fearful Void" (1974), an account of attempting to cross the Sahara on foot; Dougal Robertson's "Survive the Savage Sea" (1973), the harrowing tale of a family surviving at sea for 37 days; and Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" (1999), in which Krakauer describes a season of climbing deaths on Mount Everest.
In chapters such as "Everything Is Edible Somewhere," "Perverse Pleasures of the Inhospitable" and "Fears, Neuroses, and Other Conditions," Theroux offers astonishing extracts from Arthur Rimbaud, V.S. Naipaul and many others. Theroux is a nerd as well as a connoisseur of travel lit, to our benefit and amusement. For the chapter "How Long Did the Traveler Spend Traveling?" Theroux went through the memorable accounts of more than 40 well-known travelers to figure out how long their trips were. He concluded: Henry Morton Stanley spent three years crossing Africa for "Through the Dark Continent," Charles Dickens racked up 11 months gathering material for "Pictures From Italy," William Least-Heat Moon traveled three months on the back roads for "Blue Highways," and Graham Greene logged a mere 23 days in Liberia for the "ingeniously worked-up account" of "Journey Without Maps."
"No mode of transportation inspires more detailed observation than the railway train," writes Theroux, who ought to know. His rail trail observations includes this maxim from "The Old Patagonian Express": "No good train ever goes far enough, just as no bad train ever reaches its destination soon enough."
But he also has plenty of love for walkers, as described and collected in the chapter "It Is Solved by Walking."
"All serious pilgrims go on foot to their holy destination - Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims stand for so many others." This chapter's likely and unlikely honorees include Basho, the great haiku and haibun writer, and the movie director Werner Herzog: "In 1974, hearing that the German film director Lotte Eisner was dying in Paris, Herzog decided to walk the five hundred miles there from Munich, 'believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.' He added, as passionate walkers often do, 'Besides, I wanted to be alone with myself.'?"
Theroux's anthology serves as a big recommended reading list. He introduces scores of writers a reader might want to follow up on, such as Dervla Murphy, a self-educated Irish woman who has written 23 travel books.
"All her travel has been arduous, mainly solitary, and terrestrial, her preferred mode of travel an inexpensive bicycle," he writes. "She never complains, never satirizes herself or the people she is among."
Theroux concludes with five travel epiphanies and his 10 "Essential Tao of Travel" guidelines, including "Go by land," "Walk across a national frontier" and "Make a friend." I'll add an 11th suggestion: Pack this book on your trip, and you'll have dozens of scintillating companions on the journey with you.