Must travel be arduous to be interesting?

Posted on July 26th, 2011 by Laura Byrne Paquet in Books

That question occurred to me while reading a Financial Times article by veteran travel writer Paul Theroux about his new book, The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives of the Road. Theroux subscribes quite enthusiastically to the belief that only journeys fraught with danger, disease, fear, loathing, despair and monumental challenge are worth reading about. As he writes:

I have a love for reading about a really difficult trip, even better an ordeal. Such books, written with skill and appropriate detail, will always find a public, because they combine travel with problem solving and endurance, and that I suppose is the human condition. These people are suffering for us.

And just in case we didn’t get the point, he adds:

The world is full of jolly places but these do not interest me at all. I hate vacations and luxurious hotels are no fun to read about. I want to read about the miserable, or difficult, or inhospitable places; the forbidden cities and the back roads: as long as they exist the travel book will have value.

Among the exemplars of misery travel he cites are the successful efforts of Sir Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor) to enter Mecca in disguise in the 19th century. And, I have to admit, it does sound like a fascinating story: Burton’s efforts to blend in included learning fluent Arabic and getting circumcized.

Flickr/Creative Commons photo of Mecca by Muhammad Ghouri.

Then there are the exploits of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who sledged through the dark for six weeks in 1912-13 to study Antarctic penguins. Again, it sounds like a gripping tale.

Flickr/Creative Commons photo of Antarctica by cloudzilla.

Theroux would also like to read books about surviving revolutions, which I agree can be riveting. My favourite recent example of that genre is What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a creative non-fiction account by Dave Eggers of a Sudanese refugee’s life story. While not a travel book, per se, it taught me volumes about that region of the world.

However, are tales of hardship the only travel books worth reading? Simply because they’re Theroux’s favourites doesn’t mean other trips aren’t equally worthy of contemplation. From the humour of Bill Bryson to the erudite musings of Jan Morris (two of my favourite writers), there’s clearly a huge range of travel literature that appeals to readers of many inclinations.

What do you think? Must travel be arduous to be interesting? And what’s your favourite work of travel literature–dangerous or not? Please leave a comment and let me know.

One Comment on “Must travel be arduous to be interesting?”

  1. Edie

    I tend to get rather irritated by Paul Theroux’s writing — he, or I suppose his narrator, always seems very full of himself and macho — so I’m not surprised he’s from the suffering school of travel. In contrast, I enjoy Bill Bryson who does do a lot of difficult things but is always self-deprecating about them; he doesn’t seem to revel in the pain except in the service of making the reader laugh, as you point out.

    I too enjoyed What is the What, a difficult book about painful topics, but illuminating. And even funny in places, where the narrator discusses the political bickering among the refugees. Here’s a thought: The pain that comes from travel adventures like Theroux’s is a pain that stems from privilege, not necessity. People who suffer because they have no choice don’t romanticize it like Theroux does.

    Me, I prefer humor and joy. If I want to suffer, I can stay home.

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