Paul Theroux on reading, writing, and travel

THEROUX: “The Solid Mandala” by Patrick White. I’m a big fan of his novels but hadn’t read this one, which is about two brothers. He’s an Australian writer who has been overlooked even though he won the Noble Prize. “Voss” is his best-known book. Before that I read Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” because I had read Paul Auster’s biography of Crane, “Burning Boy,” which is a very good book. I read constantly, but seldom a popular book or a new book.

BOOKS: Do you read one book at a time?

THEROUX: I read a book for pleasure in the evening and read for work during the day. I’m writing an introduction for Mark Twain’s travel book “The Innocents Abroad.” It’s terrific and very funny. So I have a stack of Twain books and biographies by my chair.

BOOKS: What was your best trip you took reading-wise?

THEROUX: Probably the trip I took around the Mediterranean for my book “The Pillars of Hercules.” That took me to a lot of places where writers lived or wrote about. I met Paul Bowles in Tangiers. I had read “The Sheltering Sky.” I reread that and a lot of his other books. I went to a place written about by Carlo Levi in “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” a fantastically good book. You name a writer and they have written about the Mediterranean. Henry James, Lawrence Durrell, Sappho, Euripides.

BOOKS: Did you read these books before or during your trip?

THEROUX: Both. Before I met Paul Bowles I wanted to read the books of his I hadn’t read, such as “The Spider’s House.” It’s insulting to meet a writer without having read his work. You can’t just show up and say how are you doing? Bowles lived alone in a chilly tenement apartment in a back street of Tangiers. It was not inspiring.

BOOKS: Are there travel books that you reread?

THEROUX: One I’ve read numerous times is Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World,” which is about Admiral Scott’s fateful trip to the South Pole. I reread Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods” and “Walden,” both wise books. I read travel books for information rather than literary stimulation but some are brilliantly written, like those.

BOOKS: What are your reading habits?

THEROUX: If I admire a writer I read all their books and their biography. Elizabeth Taylor was a brilliant English writer who is not well known in the States. I read all of her books and then a biography of her. When you read her novels, you think she is a suburban woman who doesn’t know a lot about the world. Turns out she was a member of the Communist Party, had a very passionate love life, and traveled a lot.

BOOKS: Who influenced you the most as a reader?

THEROUX: V.S. Naipaul, who I met in Africa in 1966. He was brilliant, but cantankerous. He read all the time and often came up with ingenious suggestions for books. He didn’t like a lot of well-known writers, like E.M. Forster and Jane Austen, but he was passionate about Dickens, Shakespeare, and Indian writers. He introduced me to a lot of Indian writers I’d never heard of. He suggested books to me even later in my life, like Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea.” He said he didn’t like women writers but he was keen on her.

BOOKS: Is there a writer you wish more people read?

THEROUX: I think most college courses would profit by not being so prejudiced about old white guys or old books or books with trigger warnings. Joseph Conrad is now frowned upon unfairly. People say forget about Conrad and read Toni Morrison. I would say read them both.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at

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