The Book Club

Broad Brushes and Sticky Enthusiasm

Groan, groan. If I had a buck for each tired reference to cornfed Midwestern virtue in the Chicago books, I’d buy us a retro-chic jaunt to Niagara Falls.

But how would you write an introduction to such a vast topic for such a vast readership? Because of English’s universality–and the prohibitively high cost of printing books in one-country languages such as Danish and Hebrew–these guides are used by folks of every imaginable age and nationality. They have to appeal to Swedish grandmothers, Indonesian teenagers, and tourists from the hinterlands of New Jersey. I bet the specialized guides–the ones for children, vegetarians, gays, Jews, runners, ethnic food buffs, and so on–are better-written, because they don’t have to cast such ridiculously wide nets over subject and audience.

What really irks me about the writing is its relentlessly upbeat tone. My books coat every museum, park, and hotel with a sticky layer of enthusiasm, making the entire city uniformly and unrecognizably wonderful. Flipping through my seven guidebooks, I found not a single negative restaurant review. I just can’t trust anyone who’s this nice.

And I shouldn’t: Michael Jordan’s Restaurant, which screams “tourist trap!” so loudly that it should be carrying a camera, gets rave reviews. Fodor’s recommends its “high-quality” steaks and touts Michael’s “rather frequent appearances,” and Frommer’s calls the food “surprisingly good.” But the Chicago edition of the Zagat’s guides–which, unlike any of the guidebooks we’re covering, relies on actual reader feedback–gives the restaurant a stomach-turning food rating of 13 (out of a possible 30) and laughs that it “might be deserted if it ‘were named for anyone else.’ “

Which brings us to a dirty industry secret: Guidebook writers, unlike travel journalists, are allowed to accept free meals and lodging. Actually, since their publishing houses generally don’t provide food and hotel costs, they must rely on complimentary dinners and stays, which means that they notify the establishment ahead of time that they’re coming to write a review. Can you imagine the succulent steak, the impeccable service, the free pair of Air Jordans to which the Fodor’s writer was probably treated at Michael Jordan’s? Even Lonely Planet, the least fawning of my books, coughs that its “writers do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage.” Ah, so they can’t auction off good reviews to the highest bidder! But writers can still accept said discounts, no?

Discounts or no, Lonely Planet is proving to be my most trusted guide. This surprised me; generally, I’m a big believer in matching the guidebook to the destination, and I probably would have chosen Lonely Planet to wander real jungles instead of urban ones. But the book is far more practical than any other, dishing out such goodies as city bus routes, the best food stands at Midway airport, names and programs of favorite local radio personalities, and even the phone number of an notoriously aggressive car-towing agency. It’s the one book to provide more than a quick mention of the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, or to explain how redlining segregated the city by race. Lonely Planet is also the only guide with a discernible sense of humor. (On snowstorm cleanup, it comments, “Any Chicago politician can tell you that snow is a substance sent by God to ruin political careers, and because of that, each and every delicate little flake that falls on the city is seen as an invader to be eradicated, whatever the cost.”)

The guidebook-to-destination theory is why I was so harsh yesterday on Frommer’s shoddy survey of Chicago architecture (and for the record, it’s a difference of 10 pages, not five, and 10 times the amount of detail). Architecture is arguably Chicago’s greatest offering, both to tourists and to American life in general. This city has pioneered two landscape-alterating methods of construction (the balloon frame and the skyscraper), fostered two distinct schools of design, and nurtured talents such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I agree that true pilgrims will purchase an architecture-specific guide. But by failing to devote much extra copy or care to the subject, Frommer’s demonstated that it churns out guidebooks according to a set formula, regardless of what is unique about its subject destinations. Travel is all about distinctiveness, but I bet that the table of contents for the Chicago book is depressingly identical to that of the Philadelphia and Toronto guides.

I second your call for New Yorkers to appreciate our tourists (not to mention the riches they bring the city). Of course, we are defending ourselves here, since Americans are generally considered to be the most obnoxious visitors on earth. I like the theory espoused in the 1960s by the British essayist Clive James. He said that American tourists weren’t actually any ruder or cruder than those from other countries. Rather, it’s that international travel used to be a luxury reserved for the rich and ultra-mannered, and ours was the first nation wealthy enough to export our middle class.

Now the middle class has been traveling for decades. Air travel is an everyday activity, entire cable channels are devoted to travel, and we buy enough guidebooks to support ever-deepening niche titles. Doesn’t this suggest that tourists are simply getting better at going places, and that it’s time to dispense with the stereotype that tourists are uncouth, unchic, and generally unbearable?