Have I finally aged into Paul Theroux?
16 April 2012
I gave a short talk on nonfiction the other day, to a lovely class of library school students (at the request of their indefatigable teacher--you know who you are--thank you!) and we chatted a bit about nonfiction readers and their characteristics. As I babbled on and on, I think I said something about readers "aging into" nonfiction; this is certainly the way it happened for me. I didn't become a nonfiction junkie until my late 20s, although I always read a bit of it. In fact, I find this one of the most interesting facets of nonfiction--how young readers love perusing it (dinosaur books, anyone?), often seem to leave it behind in favor of fiction, but then sometimes return to it as older readers.
Anyway. I've read some Paul Theroux in my time, but never understood why he was such a classic travel author or how he'd gotten so popular. Well, I recently picked up his Kingdom By the Sea, and either it's because the book is about Great Britain and I'm just a sucker for all things Brit, or I've finally aged into an appreciation for Paul Theroux's writing. Or perhaps a little of both.
Theroux took as his task traveling around the entire coast of Great Britain by rail, bus, and walking, starting in London and working clockwise (including Ulster, Northern Ireland, as well). A common theme throughout is the lamenting of the dismantling of Britain's rail system, particularly as he sometimes found it difficult to "get from here to there" without a vehicle, and most particularly towards the end of the narrative when transit workers went on strike. Although the book was published in 1983, I still feel that Theroux had a good grasp on where the world was going. Consider this exchange, with a person he met on his travels:
"'Our society is changing from one based on the concept of the individual and freedom,' Mr. Bratby said, 'to one where the individual is nonexistent--lost in a collectivist state.'
I said I didn't think it would be a collectivist state so much as a wilderness in which most people lived hand to mouth, and the rich would live like princes--better than the rich had ever lived, except that their lives would constantly be in danger from the hungry predatory poor. All the technology would serve the rich, but they would need it for their own protection and to ensure their continued prosperity."
There were quite a few bits I wanted to quote from this book. More tomorrow.