I’M NOT SURE what Kim Kardashian inspires in you, but her latest plug for a new travel app (I can’t recall its name, distracted as I was by Kim’s more celebrated assets) reminded me of the enduring power of print. As a country we’re conditioned to believe in the promise of the new, but sometimes that means we overlook the power of the tried and true and that brings me back to the timeless utility and appeal of a good guidebook.
Full disclosure: I’ve authored or co-authored many guidebooks over the years, and I’ve also produced a travel app and travel content for television. And I would never forswear travel apps in the aggregate because just like when you’re working the racks at your local T.J. Maxx, amidst the multitude of middling merch you just might happen upon a pearl or two. But before hitting the road and while on it too, something always steers me back to print, and I don’t think I’m alone. After a six-year dip in guidebook sales before 2014, when sales plummeted as much as 40 percent, that trend looks to be reversing, and a recent study indicates a growing American ennui with UGC-based sources of travel information such as TripAdvisor.
No one could argue with the convenience of instantly accessible information—tapping your way to a (hopefully) better travel decision is something you just couldn’t do in the past. But with the possible exception of traveling for business, the business of travel is about more than just convenience. It’s about discovery and spontaneity, too. What a good guidebook does is ready you for both, and then leave you to it.
Case in point, one of my all-time favorite guidebooks which is not strictly speaking a guidebook or even a travel book, but an extended love letter to that most cherished if oft-trodden of destinations, Venice. First published in 1960, it’s called The World of Venice and was written by James Morris, who now goes by the name of Jan Morris and is something of a rock star in the travel writing world. Morris is living proof that you don’t need the Internet to do proper research: you just need an insatiable curiosity, a willingness to wander and probably a decent pair of walking shoes. Page after page, she brings the history, moods, sights and sounds of the world’s most beguiling city to life. You don’t find hotel reviews in those pages, but what you do find is context and passion—lots of it. As with a good guidebook, you can dip into almost any description of a given attraction, say the Piazza San Marco, and then whether you carry the book in hand or stash it in your backpack, explore that specific place with a deeper, more well-rounded understanding of your surroundings. And without a text from your mother-in-law to mar the moment.
In that sense, the old cliché speaks the truth: that a good guidebook is like a trusted friend, and few solo travelers could name a resource as valuable as that. Any trip is essentially a story, yours, and what the guidebook does is introduce the element of slowness to the pacing. And the reason that works is because if we can agree that travel is about savoring the moment, you want those moments to have staying power. Good writing that you’ve taken the time to read helps imbue those moments with greater meaning.
Plus, you never have to worry about recharging the battery! The energy has been packed into your guide in advance, ideally by a knowledgeable local who’s done the heavy lifting for you. Need interactivity? You can scribble notes in the margins at home while you’re planning your trip, or as you go. While you’re standing on top of the sun-blasted Acropolis, you don’t need to squint to see a tiny description of where you’re standing to learn about the difference between an architrave and a metope.
Also, and with all due respect to Ms. Kardashian-West, guidebooks rather wonderfully can’t take selfies. I think that’s a good thing: taking a selfie in front of a tourist icon is the digital equivalent of going to Paris to eat at McDonald’s. Which is not an impeachable offense, but does perhaps diminish the authenticity of the travel experience somewhat. Regardless of destinations covered, guidebooks are reminders that travel should be more about observation and education and of course the occasional indulgence, but less about declaring to hither and yon that “I was here.”
Years ago in the dark ages before GPS, while researching a guidebook on New York City I stumbled upon an antiquarian bookstore in a corner of Manhattan where few tourists tread. Whenever I’m in New York I try to go back to The Complete Traveler, because it’s one of the few places that makes me feel like Indiana Jones (without the jungle) and better, in a way, than most Broadway shows. The titles you’ll find inside open worlds so vast that you’re bound to look at a given destination you thought you knew in a new light. On Father’s Day, I gave my Dad a slim tome I recently uncovered there. Called Highways & Byways in Normandy, it was published in 1900 and penned by an enthusiastic chap by the name of Percy Dearmer. Maybe you can find a reprint of it online somewhere, but there’s nothing like the real thing, is there?
Within its aging but clean and intact pages there are crystal-clear descriptions (and often charming sketches) of the cathedral at Coutances, of Evreux and Lisieux and Conches and so many wonderful Norman towns…and of Saint-Lô, where my grandfather fought in the Second World War and that was almost completely destroyed by the end of it. But in 1900 the center of the town, “seen from the railway station, stands four-square on its lofty rock, rimmed about with walls; and the dark waters of the Vire pass in front of it, to go wandering off among the hills towards the sea. On either side also a tributary stream runs at the bottom of a valley, and the square platform of the old town stands proudly between the three waters, at some places with sloping sides, at others with an abrupt face of naked rock. The western wall, which is the one that faces the station, crowns a precipice that absolutely scowls at the passerby.”
No app can quite give you that—and I’m not sure I’d want one to, either.
Anthony Grant has authored or co-authored more than a dozen guidebooks, appeared on CNN and MSNBC and blogged for The New York Times T magazine as well as Tripquake. He’s currently in residence at the Hotel Tel Aviv.