Guide books v just reading a novel about a place
think guide books serve a purpose (even though I write online tips and Guides myself). A guide is something you can carry in your backpack or bag and just flip through in a different way than you can online.
I also believe that novels are a great way to invoke inspiration and make you want to discover/find something that no guidebook will tell you about.
I think that the web, guide books and novels are all invaluable when you are researching a new place. They are very different beasts! A guide has all the practical stuff with listings and tourist sights and history and one of my favourite things to do is flick through pages and make plans and daydream before a trip – online research just doesn’t hold the same excitement for me – but I do try to avoid following a guide to the letter once I’m away.
I absolutely love to read novels set in the country to really understand the place and the people. I did a big trip in India last year and would not have wanted to be without the security of a guidebook… but it was reading novels such as The White Tiger, The God of Small Things, Midnight’s Children and Shantaram that helped me understand the true essence of the country.
I don’t buy guide books when going to different states of my own country, but find them excellent for visiting other countries. I bought the Thailand guide book after I came back from Thailand (it was a big heavy book) because I started reading the copy at my accommodation when I was in BKK and became quite interested in it. While you can get a lot of information about countries and places online, having a guide book of some description with you is very handy. This I found was especially true for Laos and Burma.
I borrowed two library books as both were set in countries I was visiting the following year. Both books were autobiographies and they gave me a better understanding of the people and how they view things. I learned a lot from them and ended up buying the books for myself. I borrowed the China guide book from the library, (a great big, heavy thing) but bought the Discover China guide book and took that with me.
Novels can in their way impart information about a place, a time in history – what the rules of the day were, how people thought, how they dressed etc. and some can I suppose, set the pulses racing to go and travel there. China was a place I always wanted to visit ever since I was a small child and saw a photo of the Great Wall. I decided then that I was going to go there one day.
I do think it a good idea to have a guide book of some kind with you when travelling, how many times can you read that paperback in you bag? Guide books make for interesting reading anywhere, be it sitting under a tree in the middle of a small village, on the overnight train or simply sitting in a cafe somewhere.
A good guidebook can be just as powerful at evoking “place” as a novel, plus it tells you which buses to take and where the 24-hour pharmacies are! Not sure Wikitravel can quite claim that…
Novels that have enhanced my travels – Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast took the edgy atmosphere I found in Honduras and cranked it up a notch, while the mosaic quality of Chatwin’s In Patagonia suited my first experience of Argentina – I only had two weeks, and rushed around trying to see as much as possible.
I’ve read plenty books and info online, but it always leaves me feeling as though I’m experiencing it all through someone else’s eyes (which of course I am) as opposed to a guide book which makes you feel like you’re about to go there and experience it for yourself.
Plus most are respectable and should be filled with accurate and reliable info to help you along the way. Ultimately though, nothing beats just seeing where your feet take you.
We at www.literarytourist.com do our best to incorporate the best that new and old technologies have to offers – listing bookstores, writers festivals, authors’ houses etc., providing maps and directing visitors to recommended reads, interesting literary facts & places. Doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.