To the Ends of the Earth by Paul Theroux
One of my favorite things about airports is visiting their bookstores. I like to wander among the cramped aisles in search of something to read during the long hours passed crossing the Atlantic, or worse yet the Pacific. Invariably I find myself in the travel section with its allure of secret places and exotic adventure. It was during one such venture that I stumbled onto Paul Theroux’s To the Ends of the Earth.
To the Ends of the Earth is really the perfect airport book, because in a sense it’s not really a book at all. Instead it’s a collection of stories taken from a number of Theroux’s previous works, including The Great Railway Bazaar, The Kingdom by the Sea, and Riding the Red Rooster. As such, it provides a smorgasbord of short pieces on Theroux’s travels in India, Central America, the British Isles and China. In fact, if there is a weakness in To the Ends of the Earth it is that I found just as I started to get a feel for a place the section ended. This weakness though was easily overcome by my realization that I now had a good sense of what other Theroux books I wanted to read in the future.
For those of you unfamiliar with Theroux, he is a native of Massachusetts and is perhaps the most prolific travel writer alive. For the past forty years he has traveled the world writing, teaching English, and recording his experiences while living in Italy, Malawi, Uganda, Singapore, and Britain. Even if you are unfamiliar with his books, you may know of him indirectly from the movie Mosquito Coast, which was adapted from Theroux’s novel of the same name.
Some people I have spoken with find Theroux’s writing style oppressive and egotistical. I disagree. While it is true that Theroux makes no attempt to hide his opinions in any of his writings, including those found in To the Ends of the Earth, I find his pointed voice and direct observations refreshing, even when I disagree with his conclusions.
Whether it is recollecting the patter of his seatmate on a train ride down Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast or reflecting on the Falklands War through the words of B&B keepers in the British Isles, Theroux strips his travel stories of the flowery and the expected. As he states in the introduction to To the Ends of the Earth, while explaining what drove him initially to write about his travels, "I had done enough traveling to know that half of travel was delay or nuisance – buses breaking down and hotel clerks being rude….The truth of travel was unexpected and off-key, and few people ever wrote about it." Indeed, you won’t find the effusive prose of so many guidebooks in Theroux’s writing, but you will find the sights, sounds, and often acrid smells that ordinary tourists seldom discover or witness while being shuffled around on a tour bus.
I think Theroux states his purpose best when he says, "All travelers are optimists. I always went along thinking: I’ll be all right, I’ll be interested, I’ll discover something…and at the end of the day I’ll find a nice old place to sleep. Everything is going to be fine, and even if it isn’t, it will be worthy of note – worth leaving home for." It is just such a sense of adventure that permeates the stories in To the Ends of the Earth and that, in my opinion, separates a traveler from a tourist.