three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
By: 
Ted Conover
user_rating: 
0

How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today

A-The Routes of ManTed Conover's previous book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The Topic: Amateur gurus and career counselors alike will tell you that the journey is more important than the destination. Conover builds his book not so much around that old saw but around his firsthand experiences seeing how the construction of new roads (or even the possibility of it) has transformed places as diverse as Peru, India, and China. By traveling with truckers in Africa, walking through the snow with students in the Himalayas, and commuting between Palestinian and Israeli zones in the West Bank, Conover gains insight into the ways that roads open opportunities but that also threaten local cultures and the environment.
Knopf. 333 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9781400042449

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"While Conover examines troubling issues that road-building can entail ... it is his strong sense of life's clock ticking all around him that lifts his reporting above the ranks of travel-as-usual literature. ... [The book's] polyglot sections are individual gems of journalistic work." Art Winslow

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite his apparent fearlessness, Conover, thankfully, is no cowboy journalist. His modesty and compassion make The Routes of Man less a series of travel adventures than an empathetic look at the contradictory effects of modernity." Taylor Antrim

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Conover's roads are populated with moving characters. His narration is wide-eyed and canny, in a voice so plain-spoken and disarming it carries us right in to share his crisp descriptions and gleeful astonishment with what's common to others along his strange routes." Mark Kramer

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As someone whose eyes often glaze over at words like ‘rain forest' or ‘West Bank,' I found myself re-engaged by Conover as he put readers alongside Israeli soldiers and Palestinian commuters, and trekked with illegal mahogany traders in Peru. ... While not exactly a page-turner, The Routes of Man is certainly a brain enhancer." Clint O'Connor

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If The Routes of Man did not occasionally strain for an overview, it would be a colorful, eagerly open-minded travelogue about a slew of very different places that have only one thing in common: Mr. Conover's determination to explore them. He's a better adventurer than he is a philosopher." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As I read this book, I grew increasingly impressed not only with Conover's bravery and hardihood, which he underplays, but, more important, with that quality one associates with Steinbeck: heart. Here is a man who cares about people everywhere, not merely that convenient abstraction, humanity, but people in particular--not to mention this American toad and that Peruvian sloth." William T. Vollmann

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"[I]n the end, the book doesn't delve deeply enough into the subject matter promised by the subtitle. Rather, The Routes of Man may as well have been subtitled, ‘Remote places I have been, people I met, and the route I took to get there.'" Ethan Gilsdorf

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"I'm glad to have read the chapters on Peru and India, and I enjoyed the depiction of China's nascent road culture ... but the rest of the book never rises above competent, evanescent journalism. There's nothing wrong with that per se ... but it shouldn't be mistaken for more than it actually is." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Reviewers were generally happy to follow Conover as he brought to life some of the world's most interesting and dangerous routes while managing to steer clear of the thousand "road-as-life" metaphors that could have congested the work. But they tended to criticize him with their own transit analogy: Routes of Man, many wrote, lacks the promised path connecting Conover's adventures perhaps because many of the essays originated as magazine articles in National Geographic, the Atlantic, and other publications. For some critics, this was no issue; the subtitle, they argued, was clearly an imposition by the marketing department and shouldn't detract from the book. But others wanted more reflection from an author whom they respected for traveling so far and learning so much.