Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Chaos at the Bookstore

By Paul Gerald

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Have you been to the travel section of a bookstore lately? It’s kind of a scary place. For one thing, if you’re not careful, you can dislodge the wrong title and get yourself buried in guidebooks to Paris. I counted a whopping 43 different titles in that category on a recent run. After a grande mocha worth of wandering, the main thought in my head was, “How does the guidebook industry survive?”

I finally found something entertaining, but first I have to make fun of the industry that I am marginally a part of. How can there be 20 different guides to Germany and three shelves of guides on Italy? I kept having this funny image in my head of some poor fool planning a trip to Rome and, unable to decide between all the guides claiming to be the “most comprehensive,” buys four of them and finds out that, by golly, they’re all on the same place! You could spend more time reading about a place than actually going there, which is a positive thought only because it means job security for us travel writers.

Writing teachers always warn you to stay away from lists, but I just have to offer this Probably Not Comprehensive List to the Travel Guide Series I Saw in the Store. How any, much less all, of these people are making money at the same time is a mystery to me: Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Michelin, Berlitz, Rick Steve (whoever he is), Fieldings, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Insight Guides, not to be confused with Inside Guides, not to be confused with Inside Out Guides, Thomas Cook (whoever he is), Blue Guides, Citypack, Moon Travel, Ulysses, Mr. Cheap, AAA, Idiot’s Guides (thanks!), Access, Let’s Go, and Traveler’s Tales. That last one is actually a series of collections of narratives, with titles on Thailand, France, India, Mexico, Paris, and Food.

Some of the variations are fascinating. The Culture Shock series is all about customs and etiquette wherever you go. They even have one on the United Arab Emirates. I can only assume that this one sells well in the oil industry. There are also a dozen or so titles about women traveling. I can’t figure how women would travel differently from men, but of course there’s a lot of things I can’t figure about women. Then there’s the whole market of books on Disney World – several competing titles just in this one store. There is, I kid you not, a 725-page guide to Disney World.

They’ve also got titles like Brief Encounters: Love Affairs on the Road, The 100 Best Romantic Resorts in the World, The Roller Coaster Lover’s Companion, Have Kid Will Travel, and On The Road With Your Pet. There are vegetarian guides, architectural guides, Civil War guides, staying-healthy guides, theme-park guides, guides to where to party on New Year’s Eve 1999, and wildlife-viewing guides. Those last two are not the same category.

There’s one book called Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures You Can’t Get Unless You’re Older than 50, and Frommer’s has a Born to Shop series, which seems like a truly odd reason to travel. I got a good laugh out of one title, The Idiot’s Guide to Las Vegas. Somehow I just can’t imagine anybody having more fun in that town than an idiot.

Fodor’s has one called How to Pack. One of the chapters is called “How to Arrive Wrinkle-Free – It’s Easier Than You Think!” I think I’ll write one called, “Forget Wrinkles – Travel With Jeans!”

I did see some old favorites on the shelves. Woodall’s directory of all the campgrounds in North America is now at 1,500 pages, and Peter Jenkins, who wrote the classic Walk Across America, has now walked and written Across China. In the line of sequels, Heinrich Harrer, who gave us Seven Years in Tibet, now has Return to Tibet. Shocking news from the back cover: China has screwed that place up pretty good!

I saw another old favorite, or perhaps nemesis, depending on your attitude. Remember the Norton Anthology of Literature we were all saddled with in college? Well, now there’s The Norton Book of Travel, with writings from the ancient Greeks to Jon Krakauer and seemingly everybody in between.

At last, I escaped the books and headed for the magazines. You have to really fight through some mediocrity in the magazine section – how many magazines are there about the Caribbean? – but I found a good one before my mocha ran out. It’s called Adventure Journal, and it says it’s the result of a buyout that combined EcoTraveler, Summit, Adventure West, and Outdoor Action. It sounds heavy on testosterone, and I admit that I was jacked on caffeine, but they’ve got book reviews and news and a section full of short pieces on oddball destinations like a bay in Puerto Rico that glows at night because of some bacteria that lives in its waters. I enjoyed features on rafting the Yangtze River in China, the fight to save the black rhino in Zimbabwe, a funny piece on an Amazon River trip, and trekking with llamas (and an infant) in Glacier National Park. The writing isn’t all from heaven, but some of the subject matter is.

It’s not that I intend to do any of those things, but neither do I intend to take my idiot pet on a roller-coaster tour of the United Arab Emirates.

I figured, what the hell, if you aren’t actually going somewhere, you might as well read about going somewhere. And believe me, you can read about more places than anybody can ever go to.

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