Charles Bukowski spent a few years traveling—sometime between being declared unfit to serve in WWII and being dicovered by John Martin of Black Sparrow Press—but it’d be hard to call the drinker, poet and boarding house luminary, who spent most of his days in a bedroom, a “traveler.” Bukowski knew what it was to be a “writer,” though, and how calling yourself one too freely probably meant you weren’t one.
don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
—so you want to be a writer?, 2003
(Full text of the poem here.)
Being a traveler is no different. It is a lifestyle one doesn’t choose, but rather cannot refuse. It comes from a place so deep in your being, and is so irresistible, that innate travelers don’t decide to travel—rather they find themselves constantly looking around, wondering how in the hell they got to wherever they are. In a way, the act of calling yourself a traveler negates the title. (In the same way a thief would never identify himself as a thief.) Instead, you are someone who wants to be known as a traveler. (As in, “I am a skier;” “I am a climber;” “I am a Red Sox fan.”) This theory, of course, flies in the face of all travel magazines, like this one, whose bread and butter is the armchair traveler. But everything and everyone has their purpose and place…
This conversation of what a traveler—and travel—is and is not is visited frequently in Paul Theroux’s latest nonfiction release, The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments From Lives on the Road. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) The book is essentially a pastiche of snippets regarding travel and travel writing from eminent wanderers and authors like Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Henry David Thoreau, John Steinbeck, John McPhee and Jan Morris. The content ranges from a series of quotations to traveler’s rules to packing lists to excerpts from Theroux’s favorite books. The mere fact that Theroux chose the authors and selections—and because Theroux is the travel writer of our time—the book is invaluable. If nothing else, it is a resource for writers and “travelers,” gathered by a man who spent 50 years on the road, and 40 writing about it.
(Read The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, by Ross E. Dudd, here.)
Theroux’s taste is, for the most part, impeccable. The problem with The Tao of Travel, though, is the fact quotations and excerpts only take you so deep—making any kind of momentum, arc or even meaning in the book difficult to establish. At its best, the collection is list of every great travel book you should ever read. At its worst it, it comes across as a collection of irrelevant sound bites, some taken out of context, that read like a Chicken Soup for the Traveler—each one a seemingly pointless confirmation for the reader, that, yes, you are a traveler and this thing you do in your spare time is indeed travelling.
The awkwardness begins in the first chapter, “Travel in Brief,” with 22 pages of quotes under subheads like “The Road Is Life,” “Travel and Optimism” and “The Traveler as a Voyeur.” The first page of Chapter 1 offers quotes from D.H. Lawrence, Hans Christian Andersen and Jack Kerouac but the majority of the rest of the chapter comes from Theroux’s own books—an unsettlingly narcissistic choice, made more so by abbreviated citations like DSS for Dark Star Safari, POH for The Pillars of Hercules and FAF for Fresh Air Fiend, as if the volumes were of same literary stature as the OED.
Some great finds in Chapter 5 and 6—“Travelers on Their Own Books” and “How Long Did the Traveler Spend Traveling”—get the book moving. (Paul Bowles: “The subject matter of the best travel books is the conflict between writer and place.”) But after a while, the inevitable danger of quoting anything arises: cuteness. For example, Henry Miller’s blurb in Chapter 7, “The Things That They Carried,” where he advises bringing a jack, monkey wrench and a jimmy on cross-country road trips reads, “You’ll probably find that the wrench won’t fit the nuts but that doesn’t matter; while you’re pretending to fiddle around with it someone will stop and lend you a helping hand.” Cymbal crash, please…
It’s very possible that this book was meant to be a bathroom book. The cover is bonded leather (waterproof) and includes an elastic strap to hold it closed. It’s also very possible that the book is one of those projects a writer, late in his career, schemes with the intent of sharing his inspirations and selling a bunch of books without having to go on a trip. The thing is, such projects almost always become a nightmarish labor of love that take twice as long as a traditional book would. Which might be the book’s greatest attribute—the sheer amount of information in it. Readers simply need to recognize that most of the content is merely a beginning, like a bibliography or table of contents. To get the most out of The Tao of Travel, they’ll have to follow through, find the excerpted book itself and give it a good read.