In the world of travel writing, few names evoke the sense of adventure and profound observation like that of Paul Theroux. With an insatiable wanderlust and unyielding curiosity, Theroux has dedicated his life to exploring the farthest reaches of the globe, capturing the essence of each destination through poignant prose.
Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1941, Theroux launched his literary career with the 1975 publication of The Great Railway Bazaar, a chronicle of his four-month train journey from Great Britain to Japan and back. In the decades since, his pen has become a conduit to distant lands and cultures – from the teeming streets of Mumbai to the remote villages of Africa – unraveling the tangled webs of human existence with keen observation, incisive wit, and unflinching empathy.
Beyond travel writing, Theroux’s literary oeuvre extends to novels and non-fiction works alike, exploring themes of identity, colonialism, and the human condition. He’s won the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters Award for literature, the Whitbread Prize for his 1978 novel Picture Palace, and the James Tait Black Award for 1981’s The Mosquito Coast, which has been adapted into a movie and television show of the same name.
In a reading list for The Week, Theroux named 6 books that have most impacted his life’s work. From Madame Bovary to a biography of Thoreau, explore his recommendations below, and check out the bookshelves of other great writers here.
Paul Theroux’s Reading List
“The ultimate novel of Hollywood, written by a native (and the author of the masterpiece Miss Lonelyhearts). I read this when I was young, and my admiration fueled my ambition to be a writer. It is funny, wicked, satirical, and wholly in the American grain.” -PT
“Emma Bovary, married to a good-hearted drudge, has a healthy libido, a shopping addiction, and an unhealthy sense of romance. Flaubert’s landmark work is both a romantic novel and a critique of romantic novels, and in its writing and observation it is modern and memorable.” -PT
“This is one of those books that explain everything — in this case, the way humans gather in groups, how they seize power, and the symbols they value. It is a study in tyranny and in other forms of domination — among them, a mother serving food. Canetti put 30 years into writing it, and he deserved the Nobel Prize in literature he won decades later.” -PT
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
“This is Naipaul’s masterpiece and a classic of family life. Much of it is based on Naipaul’s own family. Hilarious most of the time and full of conflict, it is one of the few books that have caused me to laugh out loud.” -PT
Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, Vol. 1 by Fernand Braudel
“Have you ever wondered where coffee came from and when Europeans began to drink it — or tea, or chocolate? Or when men began to wear trousers rather than robes? This book answers those and many more such questions, demonstrating the ingenuity, the opportunism, the bravery, the imagination, and the salesmanship of people throughout the world.” -PT
Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls
“There are many good Thoreau biographies; this one is outstanding. Thoreau had a mind so original and opinions so startling, his Concord neighbors (including Emerson) did not know what to make of him. This sympathetic and exhaustive biography illuminates the man and his times.” -PT
(via The Week; photo by Steve McCurry)
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