The Way of the World

In his essay on “self-reliance,” Emerson wrote that “travelling is a fool’s paradise.”  He was referring to those who travel to escape the boredom or sadness of their lives, and who hope to return home somehow transformed.  Yet we may add those who travel to boast (“Look, here I am at the Parthenon!” or “I kayaked off Antarctica!”), and those who hope to experience, if only temporarily, a state of bliss, as indicated by the demand for luxurious accommodations.  Such vain quests are characteristic of the pampered tourist rather than the adventurous traveler.  Travelers don’t know where they’re going, while tourists don’t know where they’ve been.

In all of his travel writing, Paul Theroux has never shrunk from telling it as it is.  This is what makes his writing so valuable, so essential.  Few tourists would wish to observe his rules of travel: Go alone, go cheap, stay on the ground, be patient, avoid luxury, leave all electronics behind.  Yet it is only by following them that one learns anything about the world, or has anything to write about or tell about afterward.  “Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world.  That is its purpose.”

In Ghost Train, Theroux retraces his 1973 trip—as recounted in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), his first travel book—by...

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