When did guidebooks become Yellow Pages? Collections of listing and camouflaged advertisements? Mere categorizations of places where you can spend money to fulfill an action: restaurants/eat, shops/shop, museums/appreciate, hotels/sleep?
You will tell me that paragraphs and pages on history, culture, and society preface the listings. You will tell me that guidebooks list museums with cheap or free nights and gourmet grocery shops with affordable yogourt+fruit breakfasts and bread+meat/cheese lunches. When you tell me these things, I will agree.
But when I prepare a trip, I want a sense of place. How is history apparent in today’s city? Who fought for what and where? What do residents love and hate about their place? Which residents are treated as strangers? By whom? I want to plunge into place, not only read a list of places.
To show you what I mean, I’ve gathered books from the piles of library materials that cover my living room floor. Over the past few months, I’ve been planning a trip and considering writing a guidebook. I’ve immersed myself in travel writings of all sorts.
The Listings Guidebooks
Guidebooks as descriptions of sites/sights and landmarks have existed for at least 150 years. For example, the first Michelin guide, published in 1900, was a handy collection of auto-mechanic tips and roadside eating and lodging addresses for the automobile traveller. One hundred and twelve years later, Michelin still publishes guidebooks and even propels starred chefs and restaurants into global stardom.
Travel writing itself is much older. Geographers, botanists, and anthropologists have long written about other places, plants, and people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, imperial expansion and travel writing shared a burgeoning relationship.
The Tour-Guide Guidebooks
This kind of guidebook attempts to replace flesh-and-blood tour guides or document existing tours. Authors study routes, collect and prune sites and stories, propose deviations. Guided tours and their print contemporaries require great doses of labour and love. They also require curious walkers and readers. And for a walker-reader, a tour without a perspective is as interesting as a walk around the city with Yellow Pages.
When guidebooks fail to fulfill my interest in place, story, and point view, and they have, I walk to other sections of the library. I head to the fiction and nonfiction stacks that deal with labour, natural, and urban history; war, gender, and society; immigrant routes and stories, and translation studies (my “top” stacks).
Nontravel City and Place Writing
A few weeks ago, I read Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. It tells the story of a city and its encounter with human-made disasters: the post-Katrina flood and the exceptional exercise of lawlessness and racialized policing that followed the flood. Eggers invites his readers to discover New Orleans through Zeitoun, a business owner, Syrian immigrant, husband, and father.
Montreal-based author Dimitri Nasrallah sets Niko in battleground Beirut, a mall on Montreal’s South Shore, and a few other places and countries in between. The apartment walls and roof in Beirut barely keep the child protagonist safe while grown men wage war outside. Nasrallah’s emphasis on the boy and his sense of war contrasts with guidebooks’ malady of only seeing, and as an adult at that.
Sherry Simon, professor of translation studies at Concordia University, wrote a memorable account of 20th-century Montreal through its Jewish, anglophone, and francophone writers and translators (to be sure, Jewish/anglophone/francophone are not mutually exclusive). To grasp Montreal beyond what you see, or what archival and contemporary photos and maps can show you, dive into Simon’s literary analysis of Montreal’s icons (the mountain and bridges), the city’s great period of Yiddish literary and cultural production, and the intercultural and interneighbourhood movements that made up the city’s past literary scenes.
I’d love to hear from you and your place. What knowledge or sense of place do you have that is unlikely to make the pages of a classic guidebook? Can you recommend books that tell engaging stories of place or city?