When Paul Theroux set out for the Peace Corps in Central Africa in 1963, it marked the beginning of nearly five decades of reading, writing and observing what he witnessed on the road. Here, we talk with Theroux about the changes in the traveling world, why books and walkabouts go hand-in-hand, and his anthology The Tao of Travel.
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How did you decide what to include in the book?
I had never written or compiled an anthology. I knew one thing and that was that I didn’t want it to be just a list, pages of quotation. I wanted to make it as personal as possible, to describe what I value in travel and to choose my favorite books, to introduce it and have it reflect the enrichment that I’ve felt having these books in my life.
Was there anything that ended up in the book that you found by going through the shelves yourself instead of outsourcing it?
I read D.H. Lawrence’s book Sea and Sardinia, and I saw a book of letters he had written that I really liked. Then I saw a biography by Jeffrey Meyers, and I got them all together…I also read Chekhov’s book about the island of Sakhalin [Sakhalin Island], a penal colony where he went in the 1880s, I think. And then I saw that he had written some stories before, some stories afterward, there were letters. After he left this penal colony he traveled around. He went to Singapore. He went to Sri Lanka…
Letters, notebooks, stories—all that stuff is in the library. If you just send someone to the library for the book, you’ll never see any of it. But when you’re there in the library, standing in front of it, you realize how much there is…you get the big picture. It’s the great thing about libraries. It’s a shame libraries aren’t more used. You don’t find this on the Internet. You don’t find this in a bookstore. You only find it in a great library.
Why write this book at this point in your career? What made you step back and say, I have to do this?
There are so many travel books. If you look at the travel book section of the bookstore, you just think a bit about how the travel book is this strange nonfiction genre that’s everything really. It’s about cooking. It’s about living. It’s about finding a lover. It’s about looking at landscapes. It’s about risking your life. It’s about so many different things—food, life and death, finding yourself. It’s my way of sorting out the form, which is a strange form, and not very well defined.
It’s also a way of letting people know what I consider to be the great books—the books that had formed my life. There’s a Henry Miller book called The Books in My Life. Miller wrote a description of all the books that had meant something to him: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, all the books. So it’s a book about books and a book about reading.
I love travel. But I love reading as much as I love travel. Reading really made my life as much as living did, as much as travel did, as much as marrying and having children. Reading was the solace, the inspiration and the enrichment of my life. I wanted to describe the books that I loved and find some way of describing what I liked about them, what I found amusing, interesting, fulfilling, or even bad for that matter.
Would you say that travel writers produce most of the best travel writing?
The great travel books are written by brave people, men and women who are also very, very good writers. But it’s very hard to find that combination of a person who is both a great traveler and a great writer.
Mark Twain is a great writer. He was also a tremendously intrepid traveler. He came to Hawaii, he went to the Middle East, traveled all around Europe. There’re the famous women travelers in Arabia. It’s this combination, which is very hard to find. The place is part of it, too. It’s the luck of finding an amazing place at the right time. So it’s a combination of this brave soul who is a great writer and an amazing place.
With technology, the Internet, connectivity, how has travel writing changed and how will it change in the future?
It isn’t really the end of travel writing, it’s the end of a certain kind of travel writing. The idea that you can go and discover a far off place is a bit far-fetched and in an age of interconnectedness, that’s not going to happen…
The Japan that people go to to have sushi and go skiing in Sapporo is a different country now because of the horrible things that have happened. It’s a different experience. Anyone writing about it a year ago would have found a different place from what it is now. No one’s going to Afghanistan these days, but Afghanistan is still there. At some point Afghanistan will be a travel destination again. It won’t be a war zone. When that happens it will reveal itself as what it is now, what war did to it in the way that Vietnam revealed itself.
People need to be curious about the world and not complacent where they are. You really don’t know your place in the world until you see a new one.