The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road

by Paul Theroux

A philosophical guidebook and collection of insights celebrating the joy of travel, chosen by eminent travel writer Paul Theroux

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547737379
  • ISBN-10: 0547737378
  • Pages: 304
  • Publication Date: 07/24/2012
  • Carton Quantity: 24

About the book

“A book to be plundered and raided.” — New York Times Book Review

“A portal into a world of timeless travel literature curated by one of the greatest travel writers of our day.” — USA Today

Paul Theroux celebrates fifty years of wandering the globe in this collection of the best writing from the books that have shaped him as a reader and a traveler. Part philosophical guide, part miscellany, part reminiscence, The Tao of Travel contains excerpts from the best of Theroux’s own work interspersed with selections from travelers both familiar and unexpected:

Vladimir Nabokov         Eudora Welty
Evelyn Waugh          James Baldwin
Charles Dickens         Pico Iyer
Henry David Thoreau         Anton Chekhov
Mark Twain         John McPhee
Freya Stark         Ernest Hemingway
Graham Greene         and many others

“Dazzling . . . Like someone panning for gold, Theroux reread hundreds of travel classics and modern works, shaking out the nuggets.” — San Francisco Chronicle

About the author
Paul Theroux

PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.  



The Importance of Elsewhere

As a child, yearning to leave home and go far away, the image in my

mind was of flight — my little self hurrying off alone. The word “travel”

did not occur to me, nor did the word “transformation,” which was my

unspoken but enduring wish. I wanted to find a new self in a distant

place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was

something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be. Too

young to go, I read about elsewheres, fantasizing about my freedom.

Books were my road. And then, when I was old enough to go, the roads

I traveled became the obsessive subject in my own books. Eventually I

saw that the most passionate travelers have always also been passionate

readers and writers. And that is how this book came about.

 The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire

to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances

of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience

an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown, to bear witness to the consequences,

tragic or comic, of people possessed by the narcissism of minor

differences. Chekhov said, “If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.”

I would say, if you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t travel. The literature of

travel shows the effects of solitude, sometimes mournful, more often enriching,

now and then unexpectedly spiritual.

 All my traveling life I have been asked the maddening and oversimplifying

question “What is your favorite travel book?” How to answer it? I

have been on the road for almost fifty years and writing about my travels

for more than forty years. One of the first books my father read to me

at bedtime when I was small was Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in

Maine. This 1930s as-told-to account described how a twelve-year-old

boy survived eight days on Mount Katahdin. Donn suffered, but he made

it out of the Maine woods. The book taught me lessons in wilderness

survival, including the basic one: “Always follow a river or a creek in the

direction the water is flowing.” I have read many travel books since, and

I have made journeys on every continent except Antarctica, which I have

recounted in eight books and hundreds of essays. I have felt renewed

inspiration in the thought of little Donn making it safely down the high


 The travel narrative is the oldest in the world, the story the wanderer

tells to the folk gathered around the fire after his or her return from a

journey. “This is what I saw” — news from the wider world; the odd, the

strange, the shocking, tales of beasts or of other people. “They’re just

like us!” or “They’re not like us at all!” The traveler’s tale is always in the

nature of a report. And it is the origin of narrative fiction too, the traveler

enlivening a dozing group with invented details, embroidering on experience.

It’s how the first novel in English got written. Daniel Defoe based

Robinson Crusoe on the actual experience of the castaway Alexander Selkirk,

though he enlarged the story, turning Selkirk’s four and a half years

on a remote Pacific Island into twenty-eight years on a Caribbean island,

adding Friday, the cannibals, and tropical exotica.

The storyteller’s intention is always to hold the listener with a glittering

eye and riveting tale. I think of the travel writer as idealized in the

lines of the ghost of Hamlet’s father at the beginning of the play:

  I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

  Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

  Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

  Thy knotted and combined locks to part

  And each particular hair to stand on end

 But most are anecdotal, amusing, instructional, farcical, boastful,

mock-heroic, occasionally hair-raising, warnings to the curious, or else

they ring bells like mad and seem familiar. At their best, they are examples

of what is most human in travel.

 In the course of my wandering life, travel has changed, not only in

speed and efficiency, but because of the altered circumstances of the

world — much of it connected and known. This conceit of Internetinspired

omniscience has produced the arrogant delusion that the physical

effort of travel is superfluous. Yet there are many parts of the world

that are little known and worth visiting, and there was a time in my traveling

when some parts of the earth offered any traveler the Columbus or

Crusoe thrill of discovery.

 As an adult traveling alone in remote and cut-off places, I learned a

great deal about the world and myself: the strangeness, the joy, the liberation

and truth of travel, the way loneliness — such a trial at home — is

the condition of a traveler. But in travel, as Philip Larkin says in his poem

“The Importance of Elsewhere,” strangeness makes sense.

 Travel in dreams, for Freud, symbolized death. That the journey — an

essay into the unknown — can be risky, even fatal, was a natural conclusion

for Freud to reach, since he suffered from self-diagnosed Reiseangst,

travel anxiety. He was so fearful of missing a train that he appeared at

railway stations two hours ahead of time, and when the train appeared at

the platform he usually panicked. He wrote in Introductory Lectures on

Psycho-Analysis, “Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train


 This has not been my experience; I associate my happiest traveling

days with sitting on trains. Some travel is more of a nuisance than a

hardship, but travel is always a mental challenge, and even at its most

difficult, travel can be an enlightenment.

 The joy of travel, and reading about it, is the theme of this collection —

and perhaps the misery too; but even remembered misery can produce

lyrical nostalgia. As I was rereading some of the books quoted here I

realized how dated they were, and how important as historical documents

— the dramas as well as the romance of an earlier time. Yet a lot of

the old-fangledness of travel ended very recently.

 This book of insights, a distillation of travelers’ visions and pleasures,

observations from my work and others’, is based on many decades of

my reading travel books and traveling the earth. It is also intended as a

guidebook, a how-to, a miscellany, a vade mecum, a reading list, a reminiscence.

And because the notion of travel is often a metaphor for living

a life, many travelers, expressing a simple notion of a trip, have written

something accidentally philosophical, even metaphysical. In the spirit of

Buddha’s dictum “You cannot travel the path before you have become the

path itself,” I hope that this collection shows, in its approaches to travel,

ways of living and thinking too.


A "determinedly personal collection of travel appreciation."

-Kirkus Reviews

A "diverting meditation on passages from his own and other writers' works. [T]he strongest pieces descry a tangible place through a discerning eye and pungent sensibility..."

-Publishers Weekly