There’s No Toilet Paper…On The Road Less Traveled, edited by Doug Lansky
I have read some of Doug Lansky’s work and it has struck me as somewhat mixed, and that was my impression of these travel essays as well. Travel humor is a tricky subject, and in this book a variety of authors, some of them particularly famous (Dave Barry, Steve Martin, David Letterman, Bill Bryson, Dennis Miller, and David Foster Wallace among them) attempt to convey some of the humor of some of their less pleasant and more disastrous travel experiences. There are some reasons why this book fell a little flat for me. For one, a lot of the “humor” of this particular book is insulting the people the writer is visiting, and I’m not interested in laughing at the accent of Virginians or the religious tourism of evangelical Christians, both of which the authors of the respective essays send up for laughs. This is the sort of humor that may play well to hipsters and leftists, but not being either of those, I found this book a lot less enjoyable because the authors clearly had enviable travel experiences and took themselves far too seriously and the people they were around not nearly seriously enough.
This short book of less than 200 pages is made of a compilation of travel essays of a wide variety of experiences. The first essayist talks about the awkwardness of his visit to a nudist colony in Southern California, Dave Berry then complains about his failures in learning Japanese writing, and then a less well-known writer talks about how she found out her boyfriend was cheating on her and what she did about it which was grimly humorous. Other stories include the editor’s experiences getting locked out of and into a Dutch bathroom, writings about potato bugs, an experience with a witch doctor, and watching movies in Cameroon. There are stories here about goat racing, travels in Iran, an essay where the author fails to understand the danger of landmines, and Bill Bryson’s struggles with the numbers necessary to get tickets for a train ride. The editor himself contributes an essay on the art of riding a third world bus, an art some of us have mastered to at least some level of competence, and a variety of other essays that combine reflections on animals, mockery of people, and the authors’ cluelessness about the languages of the countries they are visiting.
Is this book worth reading? That depends. If you like your travel writing heavy on snark and coming from people who seem particularly entitled and also highly clueless but not always aware of how clueless they sound, this is the book for you. It was apparently this quality that endeared this book to the selectors of the small press best travel humor award that this book won when it came out. Yet if your tastes are more humane and empathetic towards Virginians and evangelicals, for example, then you will probably find many of the stories rather annoying and off-putting. There were some generally funny stories here, and this sort of book is likely to be a mixed bag because it’s hard for humor to necessarily resonate with all of the people who come across it, but it wasn’t really as funny a book as I was hoping for. If the book did one thing right, at least, that was in demonstrating to me the nature of my own sense of humor (or lack thereof) when it comes to travel, given my own perspective and my own approach to my travel experiences, which is admittedly different than many of the writers here.