Reading Paul Theroux’s latest book, ‘Figures in a Landscape’

When it comes to travel writing, Paul Theroux is a living legend. Anyone familiar with the genre has likely read one of the books for which the American writer is justifiably famous like The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express or The Happy Isles of Oceania so his many fans are always excited when he publishes something new.

That something new is a Figures in a Landscape, an anthology of non-fiction writing that was released earlier this year. Anyone expecting one of his introspective travelogues will be disappointed, but this collection serves up enough outstanding writing that they will come away knowing a little more about the world and a little bit more about Paul Theroux.

The stories in this book mostly collect magazine articles of Theroux’s that he has written over many decades and while they are not exclusively travel stories, many of them are and they are a treat.

The essays in Figures in a Landscape include celebrity profiles, literary discussions, personal philosophy and travel sketches that collectively reveal a a bit more about Theroux, a man who has said he doesn’t want to publish an autobiography because he thinks it’s a sign that an author is spent and has nothing left to write about. Despite that claim, there is enough autobiography here and in some of his other books that Theroux doesn’t seem to be someone with many secrets.

His celebrity profiles are something of a revelation and the best of the lot is a revealing portrait of Elizabeth Taylor during a visit to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. His encounters with names like Robin Williams, Oliver Sacks and an anonymous sex worker who deals with odd bondage kinks are also enjoyable reads. His ability to capture these people on the page is an extension of his outstanding skill at observing details that elevates his travel writing above the rest.

Many of Theroux’s essays in this book also provide loving overviews of some of his favourite writers like Graham Green, W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Hunter S. Thompson. Theroux admits that many of his works are filled with references to books he’s loved so these essays will provide insight into those influences.

The section of the book that will entertain his fans the most are his travel stories. In many of them, he waxes philosophical about travel and travel writing:

“Travel can seem one of the most annoying, self-indulgent, even futile ways of passing the time. But travel should be about looking deeper into the world at large, into oneself,” he writes.

He says that readers should beware of what they read in travel books because they are merely the observations of one person on a given period of time and are not necessarily an accurate portrayal of a place.

“All you do as a note-taking traveler is nail down your own vagrant mood on a particular trip. The traveling writer can do no more than approximate a country.” he explained.

Where Theroux is at his best is when he shares his travel philosophy with his readers. Sure, you can go on a comfortable beach vacation to enjoy yourself, but the author thinks that we should get outside of our comfort zones if we want to use travel as a way to better ourselves:

“As for the recognition of hard travel as rewarding, the feeling is mainly in retrospective, since it is only in looking back that we see how we have been enriched,” he says.

Get off the beaten path and visit countries that are maligned and you will find those trips to be the most fulfilling, he says.

“‘Don’t go there,’ the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger-wagger says of many a distant place — I have heard that my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice.”

Anyone’s who’s read and enjoyed Theroux’s work will be glad he ignored the advice he was given in order to have the adventures that inspired his writing. We are also fortunate enough that he was able to live in a time when magazines, newspapers and books were able to provide travel writers with a means to earn a living because today’s writers of social media aphorisms don’t compare.

  • Figures in a Landscape: People and Places by by Paul Theroux is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

5 books that changed how I travel

Libraries full of books have been written on travel, most of them forgettable, but a few remain timeless. I’ve only sampled a tiny portion of the world’s travel books, but there are a few that changed the way that I travel and how I think about travel. Here are five books that were important to me:

1. The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau
Today, we mostly travel for pleasure, but there was a time that people did it for very specific purposes. Trade and migration were common reasons, but spiritual travel in the form of religious pilgrimage was another powerful motivator. Cousineau discusses how we can use our travels today to recapture that spirit and bring meaning to our wanderings. I often find myself thinking deep thoughts in the long hours spent alone while travelling. This book brought some clarity to me and made me realize that perhaps there was a meaning for why I was driven to travel and explore the world.


2. The Traveler’s Eye by Lisl Dennis

Photography has always been an important part of my travels. I love capturing images of a place to help me remember what I saw and to communicate that vision to others. I have always wanted to go beyond the typical snapshots and take the kind of photos that make a place come alive to the viewer. I think I’ve gotten better at it over time, but am still a long way from where I would like to be. I have read many photography books, but this one was geared specifically to travellers and the author’s philosophy of focusing on small details and getting closer to capture the best shot resonated with me and changed how I take photos and how I see the world. It is less a technical manual than it is a manifesto on how to observe things around you.

3. Sons of the Moon by Henry Shukman

A million travelogues have been written. I’ve read some great ones and have even been bored by a few, but this one about a man’s journey in South America’s Andes stands out. His descriptions of the people and the landscape of the Altiplano transported me there like few other books have. His words made me want to visit this land so I could see it for myself. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to get there, but the power of this book is such that I still want to go. I was also moved by the author’s inner struggle about writing about this unspoiled place and how it might attract future travellers and how that could transform it to become unrecognizable.

4. The Beach by Alex Garland

This book is a fictional account of a backpacker’s adventures in Thailand that transport him to an island that is a traveller’s paradise, one that is off the Lonely Planet trail. It seems like heaven, but things go terribly wrong. This book reminded me of the silly debate about what is a “real” traveller. It made me get over myself and realize that any kind of travel is good for you and that there is no use for labels like travellers and tourists. (Even though the critics hated the Leonard DiCaprio movie version of the book, I thought it was great.)

5. Falling Off the Map by Pico Iyer

In the late 1990s, I wrote a regular travel column for the Montreal Gazette and called it Off the Map. The name was inspired by the title of Iyer’s book, but I only wish I was half the writer he is. This book chronicles Iyer’s witty and accurate observations of several of the world’s “lonely” places such as North Korea, Iceland and Bhutan. Ironically, many of the countries he wrote about two decades ago have become fairly mainstream destinations, a byproduct of our constant desire to seek out places that others haven’t visited. Iyer’s prose is outstanding and forced me to think about being more observant when I travel and made me want to become a better writer.

Honorary mention: Looptail by Bruce Poon Tip

This book is partially a biography and partially a business manual by the founder of G Adventures. The overall message from the book by Poon Tip is that he believes travel can make the world a better place by putting money in the hands of people in the places we visit and it can bridge cultures to help foster world peace. It made me realize that travel can be a transformational force and not just a pleasant activity.

What are the travel books that you found inspirational? Let me know in the comments.