Monday, December 19, 2011

Old Guidebooks

Any connoisseur of travel eventually becomes a connoisseur of guidebooks. To be in a new place is to face one's ignorance, and a great guidebook can not only educate you but actually change your life. Yet few books age more quickly—who would ever pay cover price for a guide to Paris from five years ago?

But early in travel I learned that the truly out-of-date guide, obsolete for thirty or even a hundred and thirty years, can be invaluable. They are the most detailed time capsules we possess about the world as it actually was. I can page through a 1962 guide to the Bahamas and there my childhood lingers, isle by happy isle. Or I can open a 1929 Baedeker to Egypt, the decades peel away, and a vanished Cairo is revealed—right where it always was, hiding under the present.

Mass tourism began (1841) with Mr. Thomas Cook in England organizing a long day's excursion; but guidebooks for the bold voyager came before. By the mid-19th century, these guides had enlarged the Grand Tour to include the farthest reaches of Empire—for touristic and imperial motives always follow each other like pickpockets.

The three best series of guides can still be bought for a few dollars per volume at used bookshops. Delved into over and over through the years, in the field they for me proved wiser and just as useful as their up-to-date colleagues. They also remind me how travel is always as much an experience of time as space.

Les Guides Bleus (The Blue Guides) originated in France and, naturally, concentrate in most detail on its pleasures, mile by mile; they soon appeared in English for the benefit of the more savage traveler. Their format, even between the world wars, remained pure 19th century—miraculous mini-encyclopedias of small print, dense maps, and compression—but their mood was a weird mix of the concerned local who doesn't want you to wander astray and the urbane intellectual who hopes to elevate your sensibilities. Their rich blue covers are still lovely.

Favorite moments? A 1923 guide to the Rhone Valley kindly reminds the traveler doing suggested routes "in an opposed direction" to make all necessary changes, "notably those in respect to right and left, or going up and coming down." The 1919 guide to Loire chateaus contains photos of every village, with arrows telling you which turn to take for where, determined to make sure you won't get lost.

The John Murray Handbooks, from London, began in 1820 when that publisher adventurously hired an experienced lady traveler to produce a handbook of "the Continent." It was such a success that Murray followed with a series that embraced all Europe and also included Egypt, Russia, Hong Kong, Australia, and dozens of countries in-between. Bound in a soft, gold-lettered red with dozens of foldout maps of stunning accuracy and usability, the Murray's guides set a standard never surpassed. They were written by experts, updated every few years, and extremely thorough. (The 1912 Ireland guide is over six hundred pages of tiny print; thirty are devoted to angling.) Editorial policy was to answer any question that might arise. The "Handbook for India, Burma, and Ceylon" began as four huge volumes written by a Captain Eastwick over thirty years; in the end it became one book nearly a thousand pages long, and is still the best guide to the subcontinent.

Though they followed Murray (the bindings even look alike), the original Baedekers—which began in 1832 and ended in 1944 when the Leipzig factory got bombed—have become a synonym for the detailed, exhaustive guide. A family business, Baedeker grew to include 78 titles in English, French, and German. They provide a handy vista of travel habits. The French Riviera had its own enormous volume; the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Alaska all got lumped together. Baedeker followed Murray's practice of assuming (until WWII) that people journeyed to experience and to learn, not to buy and consume. They are written in a formal, dry, witty prose that has aged well (on Naples: "The traveller is often tempted to doubt whether such a thing as honesty is known here.") even if the inch-by-inch approach can tire. Like Murray, they have a lordly, impartial incorruptibility which is now sadly obsolete.

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