A rousing around-the-world paean to the rumble of the rails by accomplished journalist Zoellner (A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, 2011, etc.).
The author, who commutes by train to his teaching job in Los Angeles, notes their utility in moving people and freight. Also, Zoellner finds trains good places to fall in love, if fleetingly, and to get reading and thinking done. Some of the things he thinks about are—well, things that it hasn’t occurred to other writers to ask about, such as the decidedly detrimental effects human excrement has on the rail lines of India: First, it eats away at the metal, and then it attracts insects that eat rail ties, telephone and signal poles, and even railroad cars themselves. (The Hindi word for “this universal human output” is goo.) Mostly, Zoellner concentrates on less icky topics, and often to memorable effect, as when he writes of a foggy journey through northern England, “a J.R.R. Tolkien vision come to life” and an “eldritch scene” to boot. England may be a land of plains and valleys “with an occasional volcanic knob on which the ruins of a fortress might be standing and one where the occupants had almost certainly sucked all the wealth from the surrounding fields and converted it into magnificent furniture and swords,” but America, with its continentally vast distances, has much catching up to do—for one thing, trains travel much slower here than they do elsewhere in the world. Having train-hopped across continents, Zoellner closes his account with a cleareyed look at what needs to happen in America if trains are to have a future—it will involve considerable infusions of money and overcoming vested-interest opposition.
Great for fans of Paul Theroux’s railroad journeys, except that Zoellner isn’t anywhere near as ill-tempered, and he has a better command of social history. A pleasure for literate travelers.