American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux’s latest book, The Tao of Travel, is a compilation of excerpts from his own travel writings as well as those of authors such as Nabokov, Greene, Hemingway, Samuel Johnson, Chatwin and Waugh. Currently in London on a promotional tour, we chat to him during a gap in his busy schedule.
All my life, people ask me what’s my favourite book, what’s my favourite work of journalism, my favourite movies, my favourites songs. It’s very difficult to narrow things down to a Top Ten, or even a Top 100. I thought I would like to compile all the works that were personal to me. Most anthologies are just a list. But I deliberately chose parts of books that mean something to me, that I particularly like.
Why the Tao? Is this a spiritual or philosophical endeavour for you?
In some sense, yes. A journey is also a metaphor for life, for living. The Tao is a way, a path, the teaching, the discovery. My book is like a guide on how to make a trip. It’s my way.
And it’s for people who love to read – many of the books that I’ve chosen are out of print, some of them have been nearly forgotten.
These short extracts from various books. Is this some kind of implicit acknowledgement of the kind of world we’re in today, of the way we read so many things in snippet form, the way we digest information in the age of the internet?
Yes, in a way. And it’s true the internet has lots of quotations and easily accessible extracts. But here’s something to think about. Quotes by Mark Twain, Jack London – you can find them all over the internet. But many quotes attributed to famous writers are unsourced and undocumented. Or there can be 50 slightly different versions of somebody’s quote. I’ve come across quotes attributed to me that I never said, or never said in exactly that way.
The internet can be a fount of misinformation as well as information. It’s a real problem for research and scholarship.
In the end, I did virtually all my research for the Tao of Travel in a library, with actual books. So although the book may appear a little like internet quotations, it’s not. It was done completely independent of the internet.
The concept of travelling itself has changed with new technology. When one is skypeing with a person at the other end of the world, for instance, it feels a bit like one is ‘travelling’ or reaching somewhere else, at least for a few minutes. What do you feel about such developments?
It’s all introduced the idea that travelling is unnecessary. I remember, in the 1970s, I saw off someone in a Jumbo jet and I thought, ‘This is humungous. This is obviously the future’. For the first time, you could take a whole lot of people almost everywhere. Travel turned from being something for the very few, the very privileged, to being for a lot more people. And of course things have changed further since then.
But I do think that there are still places you can go that are relatively unexplored, where nobody else wants to go. And things are constantly evolving – for instance, Afghanistan used to be a friendlier place to visit than now. And Vietnam was at war in the 1960s, but now it’s welcoming. In travel, the opportunities keep changing.
How about the changing nature of travel writing? People go to places and then blog or tweet about them almost instantly. Is this the future?
The blog is a valid form of comment. It keeps people current, it’s a way of monitoring. It’s very conversational, very unformed, almost instantaneous. There’s a sense that blogs and tweets are unthought-out, even rambling. A tweet is basically a reaction.
There’s still a place for the narrative, which is very different. A blog or a tweet is like a postcard or a telephone call. It’s not like a piece of prose.
In my book, I write about the Australian [16-year-old Jessica Watson] who was the youngest person to sail around the world alone, and she kept everyone informed about her journey. It was amazing; we could share her miseries, share her adventure. I enjoyed her blog, but for me there’s a sense that it’s provisional. I’d love to read her book.
Is travel necessary?
No. There’s a chapter in my book about staying at home. Personally, I like to travel. It shows you how small you are and how big the world is, how insignificant you are in a huge planet. You learn to negotiate with other people and with the world around you. From travelling you gain the knowledge that the future of the planet is at stake – there are too many of us, there’s not enough water, energy, there’s probably not enough food.
So for me, I think travelling is a good idea. I would go mad if I stayed at home.
But no, travelling isn’t necessary. Many people have lived happy, fulfilled lives without going anywhere.
The most dramatic experience for me will always be crossing a frontier. It’s something you can realise at any border, be it between Singapore and Malaysia, or Malaysia and Thailand, or India and Pakistan. It doesn’t matter which. But you mustn’t fly over by plane, it’s something you must experience for yourself – the change in a language, the cultures, the colours.
There’s the thrill of crossing from Africa to Europe, North America to South America. That’s what I like – stepping over a border.
The Tao of Travel is published by Hamish Hamilton, Penguin.
Paul Theroux will be speaking on May 24 at the Southbank Centre as part of the Great Thinkers series. He will also participating at the Hay Festival.