The Book Club

Long Live Travel Guides

Andrew, please don’t send your guidebooks off to Fresh Kills just yet (did they overlook this site? Located in Staten Island, it’s the largest and most poetically named garbage dump in the world). I don’t think the Web will make any of our books extinct, or even slow their evolution into ever-diversified species. To toss off a cliché of my own, the Web is just too unruly. One of the marvelous things about our books is the way they organize a major metropolis and its millions of component parts into a digestible, unintimidating, navigable package. They tell us what to see, where to start, and—this is very important—what to do in case we lose a wallet or rupture an appendix. The Web is host to some excellent travel sites, but you’d have to visit several of them in order to produce a commensurately comprehensive guide. You wouldn’t have a table of contents or an index. And you’d have to traipse around with a thick sheaf of computer printouts instead of a slim paperback.

That said, if electronic books ever replace printed ones, travel guidebooks will surely be first among the wired. Our kids will probably hit the road with Palm Pilot XXVIIs stuffed in their backpacks. Instead of buying an actual book before they depart (or hunkering down with 10 of them in the local Barnes & Noble and scribbling down the best of each, as I usually do) they’ll simply download the latest version of the Lonely Planet Guide to Graceland, which will contain constantly updated train schedules, hotel prices, and restaurant menus. They’ll enjoy the coherence and organization of our guidebooks, but also the accuracy and timeliness of the Web.

To finish off the book reviews, let me predict that the Access Guides may be out of business by then. Each day I’ve tested it, my Access Guide has lagged farther and farther behind the others. Richard Saul Wurman, the information impresario who created the series, started off in the telephone book business (click here for his illustrious bio), and his guides work very much like your local White Pages. Each site, restaurant, and hotel has its own entry. If you know what you want to look up and what it’s called, you’ll be fine. If not, you’ll have to read the whole damned book. There’s no narrative to tie the entries together and little indication that some are more special than others (the Carbide and Carbon Building, a “deco masterpiece,” gets the same amount of space as the local Eddie Bauer).

Another example: Chicago is graced with a 20-mile belt of parkland along its lakefront. I’ve been running there each day, and the trails are among the most scenic and immaculately maintained I’ve ever seen. The park also features beaches, volleyball and tennis courts, mini golf, and even an outdoor gym with a full set of Nautilus machines, all accessible to the public. In short, the lakefront is one of the city’s most defining, enviable, and enjoyable features—like what canals are to Venice or the beach is to Los Angeles. But Access consigns it to a short sidebar, titled “Cycling in Chicago,” that fails to describe many of the park’s offerings, or more important, its central role in city life. There’s no mention of the park in the table of contents or the index, so unless you happened to read Page 83 in detail, you’d never learn about it at all.

I disagree with your suggestion that a guidebook contain only endorsements. I want mine to include a few well-chosen pans, to steer me away from the overrated and the overpriced. Then again, perhaps you’re just a more chipper traveler than I am; you seemed to enjoy all your guidebooks equally. Or did you? I know our dialogue is over, but I still wish I could ask you where you’re going next and which of these guides you would bring along. From now on, I’ll be traveling with Lonely Planet and Insight. Maybe I’ll continue to breeze through Fodor’s, Compass, and Frommer’s in airport bookstores. As for Access, I hope it goes the way of steamer trunks and Pan-Am.

Happy trails to you,