The crucial matters of civilization, contends Ted Conover in The Routes of Man, invariably occur on and alongside roads, be they ground-based pathways or navigable rivers. Here is where cities are built, commerce conducted, cultures mingled, empires extended and invaders admitted. Just about every good thing a road enables is matched by something bad; the same route that conveys one’s goods to market can just as swiftly bring back disease and political disruption, or it can create a momentarily bustling economy at the expense of scarce natural resources.

To demonstrate the more particular consequences of modern roads, Conover invites the reader to accompany him on sometimes long and frequently hazardous journeys through Peru, the Himalayas, East Africa, the West Bank, China, Lagos and Nigeria. In Lagos, he hangs out with an ambulance crew stationed beside an incredibly clogged and robber-infested freeway. In China, he joins a rally of newly minted car enthusiasts for a weeklong excursion from Beijing to Hubei province. In the Himalayas, he trudges with villagers along the frozen river that is their only winter outlet to the outside world.

Conover rides “shotgun” in the West Bank with both Palestinian residents and the Israeli soldiers who patrol and monitor the region’s roads. Ubiquitous and maddeningly arbitrary in their operation, the soldiers’ checkpoints are an unrelenting source of frustration and humiliation to the Palestinians: “Most permit both vehicles and pedestrians to pass, but some allow only pedestrians. Some close at dusk and open at dawn. . . . Some allow anything to pass once the soldiers have left for the night. And some change the rules from day to day.”

Although the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in what appears to be detail for its own sake, The Routes of Man is an absorbing read. Conover may not reach any grand conclusions about the future of roads, but he does illuminate the myriad functions of these vital but underappreciated structures—not the least of which is their symbolic importance to the human race, which is constantly on the move. 

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