An interview with the author about his new book, The Tao of Travel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
If there were an "A-List" of living American travel writers, Paul Theroux's name would be at the top. He revitalized the travel writing genre with his 1975 book The Great Railway Bazaar, and since then the prolific author has written more than a dozen travel books (and 28 novels or story collections) from regions as far-flung as Britain, Patagonia, the South Pacific, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and Africa. His reflection on the joys of Maine in the wintertime, "The Wicked Coast," appears in the June issue of The Atlantic.
Theroux's newest book, The Tao of Travel, is not a narrative account of a single journey, but what the author calls "a distillation of travelers' visions and pleasures, observations from my work and others'...based on many decades of reading travel books and traveling the earth." Excerpting travel insights from writers like Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, Freya Stark, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Pico Iyer, and Susan Sontag, The Tao of Travel is "intended as a guidebook, a how-to, a miscellany, a vade mecum, a reading list, [and] a reminiscence." Theroux spoke to The Atlantic by phone from his home in Hawaii.
Your one-time mentor V. S. Naipaul once told you, "A book needs a reason for being written." Why did you write The Tao of Travel?
Over the past 40 or so years people have asked me what my favorite travel book is, and there's no simple answer. The fact is that I have hundreds of favorites, and so I wrote this book, which is a personal anthology. It's not just a listing of the books I like; it's an explanation of why I like them. It's an elaborate reading list, you might say, to get people interested in those books.
You're quoting a lot of other authors in The Tao of Travel, sometimes at length, and this aggregated aspect of your book makes it feel a little blog-like. Would you agree with that comparison?
You could say blog-like, but I think "blog-like" is a disparaging term. I loathe blogs when I look at them. Blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling. To me writing is a considered act. It's something which is a great labor of thought and consideration. A blog doesn't seem to have any literary merit at all. It's a chatty account of things that have happened to that particular person.
I don't know whether you're familiar with Cyril Connolly: He was a friend and schoolmate of George Orwell. He wrote a book called The Modern Movement. I didn't use it as a model, but it's a book that I like very much because he lists and describes the books that created the modern movement in literature. Joyce's Ulysses, Albert Camus's The Stranger, D.H. Lawrence. All the books, mainly from the 20th century, that were the newest, the best, the most innovative. Hemingway is in it; Fitzgerald is in it. It's not just a list: He wrote personally about why he liked those books. The Tao of Travel is similar in that way.
Speaking of books that contain an element of travel, Greg Mortenson's bestseller about Central Asia was in the news recently. Were you surprised by the allegations that Three Cups of Tea contained fabrications?
No, I wasn't. One of the things the Tao of Travel shows is how unforthcoming most travel writers are, how most travelers are. They don't tell you who they were traveling with, and they're not very reliable about things that happened to them. For example, everyone loved John Steinbeck's book Travels With Charley. Turns out he didn't travel alone, his wife kept meeting him, yet she was never mentioned in the book. Steinbeck didn't go to all the places he mentioned, nor did he meet all the people he said he met. In other words, Travels With Charley is fiction, or at least half-fiction. As for Three Cups of Tea, I think that philanthropists and humanitarians are even less forthcoming about what they do. I guess this guy did build a couple of schools in Afghanistan, but a self-promoting humanitarian is not someone I have a great deal of trust or belief in. I lived for six years in Africa and I've been to Africa numerous times since then. People build schools for their own reasons—not to improve a country.
The people I've known who've done great things of that type—you know, building hospitals, running schools—are very humble people. They give their lives to the project. Missionaries get a bad rap, but I've known missionaries in Africa who were very self-sacrificing and humble and who did great things. They ran schools, hospitals, libraries; they helped people. Some wrote dictionaries and translated languages that hadn't been written down. I saw a lot of missionaries in Africa that were doing that, and you would never know their names; they came and did their work, and now they're buried there.
Are there travel books out there that feel especially honest to you?
Many of the books I quote in The Tao of Travel feel honest. One of them, really the most heartfelt, is Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi. Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard is a very honest book. Jan Morris has written numerous books, and you can take what she says to the bank.
But there are some that just don't feel right. Bruce Chatwin never rang true to me. Bill Bryson said that he would take a couple of people and make them into one composite character. Well, that's what novelists do. If you're a travel writer you have to stick to the facts.
Are there any permissible shortcuts in travel writing?
Yes: The main shortcut is to leave out boring things. People write about getting sick, they write about tummy trouble, they write about having to wait for a bus. They write about waiting. They write three pages about how long it took them to get a visa. I'm not interested in the boring parts. Everyone has tummy trouble. Everyone waits in line. I don't want to hear about it.
Cell phones have made the contemporary travel experience feel less isolated than a generation ago, but you discourage their use in The Tao of Travel. Why is that?
What I'm arguing for in the book is more isolation. I like the idea of isolation, I like the idea of solitude. You can be connected and have a phone and still be lonely. In the same way that sexual promiscuity doesn't necessarily make people happy; you can have a lot of sex and still be lonely. So I think that cell phones and constant connection have induced a different kind of solitude, one that doesn't solve the problem of loneliness.
Travel works best when you're forced to come to terms with the place you're in. When I was in the Peace Corps I never made a phone call. I was in Central Africa; I didn't make a phone call for two years. I was in Uganda for another four years and I didn't make a phone call. So for six years I didn't make a phone call, but I wrote letters, I wrote short stories, I wrote books.
What might you say to an 18 year old who's just started traveling, and whose life revolves around a smartphone and an Internet connection?
What's obvious now is that people don't travel in the same way, and they' don't leave home in the same spirit. You get a blank stare from most people if you say, "Put your BlackBerry away," or "leave your computer at home." But it's possible, and you're better off without it.
The kind of remote connection that we're talking about doesn't help you, because in travel—as in life—you learn by doing things. You learn a language by talking to people, by being in the moment, in the place, not by calling your friends or your mother.
You're a big proponent of going alone and traveling light. What do you bring with you when you're on the road?
The minimum is a change of clothes, a book, a toothbrush, notebooks, an extra pen. I don't bring extra shoes. Just the necessities. I travel with a small duffel bag that fits under a seat on the plane, as well as a briefcase. The briefcase is my office. I'm always happier when I don't have a lot of stuff.
I'm very interested in people who don't travel with much. When I was in Burma, in Mandalay, I traveled with a Korean Buddhist monk, who I describe in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. The monk didn't have any luggage, just a cloak rolled around his possessions—an alms bowl, a flashlight, a thin wool sweater, a tin of aspirin, a few other items. Luggage is just the bane of anyone's existence. It's impedimenta in every sense. Not having to carry anything is the ideal.
You spend much of the year in Hawaii. Has that place come to feel like home to you?
Hawaii is beautiful. I have chickens, I raise bees, I have geese; I work in my gardens. It's a wonderful place. But the only place that feels like home to me is in Massachusetts, where I grew up. There's something about the weather, something about the air, something about the texture of life there.
As a coastal New Englander, I have this sense of the feng shui of a coast, the water, the wind, the storms. I grew up with marine sunlight, which is a particular kind of light. I've always lived in places that have water. In England I lived near the Thames River; in Singapore I lived near the straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. In Africa, when I was living in an inland bush place, I felt a little lost.
In your book you quote Carson McCullers as saying, "As often as not we are homesick most for the places we've never been." Do you have a longing for any places you've never visited?
I think she was suggesting places you hanker for—places that you think about a lot, feeling that if you went there you would feel at home. I've always wanted to go to Greenland, and one of these days I will. Angola, too.
And driving around country roads in the American South: I think the South has something waiting for me there.