Guidebooks: More Yellow Pages?

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

What I call “classic” guidebooks. These are great first and last resources. Browse and read for a quick overview of a city’s neighbourhoods and major landmarks or a region’s landscapes and parks. Then go elsewhere: visit parks’ and museums’ calendars of events, or talk to locals or friends who’ve visited the place. Don’t rely on “classic” guidebooks to show you a good time.

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

Descriptions and routes of Montreal. Year of publication (from left to right): 1976, 1982, 1980.

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

Montréal: Paris d’Amérique, Paris of America. 1961.

Authors and poets (Félix Leclerc, A. M. Klein, and F. R. Scott, among others) write about Montreal in this bilingual collection (Montréal: Paris d’Amérique, Paris of America). Over 100 photographs complement the text.

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.

What do fiction and nonfiction books tell us about place? The Cellist of Sarajevo moves from apartments to the streets of Sarajevo during its siege in the early 1990s. Zeitoun remembers post-Katrina New Orleans, but also the United States and the chief places of the global war on terror (e.g., open air prisons). Small Demons, a new visual catalogue, allows readers to browse books by their content: cities, persons, things, pop culture references, and even cigarette brands.

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.

Literature, translated or not, like history, goes beyond what we can see. Le goût de Montréal is an anthology of excerpts about the city. This handy paperback is an excellent introduction to multiple Montréals. Simon’s Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City studies many of the authors and poets who contributed to Montréal: Paris d’Amérique, Paris of America.

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?


2 thoughts on “Guidebooks: More Yellow Pages?

  1. I love how you call us to think about place in a conscious way, to ask ourselves questions about specific places. What do we see in a place that is familiar to us or why do we want to visit certain places, what is the attraction, what draws us to want to explore the geography, culture and their role in the mosaic of place.

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