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What To Look Out For When You're Buying Travel Books

Nov 25, 2007
Surely everyone loves a good travel book but sometimes they can be disappointing, more often, say, than a recipe or handcraft book. There are ways to avoid missing the bus.

Before forking out dollars for a travel book, ask yourself the following: am I in love with the idea of this book or the book itself? Take for example a book entitled "Gorgeous Morocco". Are you in love with the idea of glorious Morocco or the book you are holding in your hand? To establish this you need to ask: what is the purpose of buying this book?

If you are planning a trip to Morocco and it's nuts-and-bolts information you are seeking, then it is no good buying the incoherent ramblings of a traveling school teacher in the 1950's. It's also no good being attracted by the photographs, because photos do lie and hardly constitute hard information. If you are simply keen on reading and learning about Morocco in general, then a book written from any angle will do, unless it is something completely off-beam, like a book written in the 1920's by a missionary, called "How I Converted Four Heathens In Morocco".

If it's useful travel information you are after, ask yourself: is this book up to date and properly researched? If you are holding a book called "Mainland Greece", for instance, do a quick test. Think of a town in mainland Greece you know, such as Thrace, and see how quickly it takes to locate the section on Thrace and how useful the information is concerning accommodation, transport, restaurants, attractions, etc.

Easy-to-navigate handbooks with great indexes are just the ticket. They should be compact, so you can fit them in your hand luggage and cheap enough that if you lose them you don't mind. The rule of thumb is that a few illustrative photographs are good - they show serious intent on the part of author and publisher to inform you - but too many photographs diminish the quality and quantity of the usable information. There should be concise historical nuggets and handy insider travel tips. There should also be complementary online resources listed for up-to-the-minute information.

If it's not practical information you are after, but you want to feed your travel dreams and inform yourselves about countries through the ages then ask: who wrote this book? There has been a "colonization" of countries through travel writing. I mean that certain writers in English writing have become inextricably linked with writings about certain countries. They are quite simply the last word on the subject.

Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller colonized Greece. Lawrence of Arabia colonized Arabia, Robert Lacey colonized Saudi Arabia. William Dalrymple colonized Byzantium and Delhi. The Durrells colonized Corfu. Bill Bryson colonized Australia and rural America. Lisa St. Aubin de Terán colonized South America and Umbria. Peter Mayle colonized Provence, And so on. The quality of travel writer you want when you are reading for dreaming and escapism is completely different from the quality of writer you seek when it's current useful data you are after.

If you are after visuals and looking through a pictorial travel book, then you should ask:

how much has the photographer introduced of his/her own vision into the book? There is nothing that puts a traveler's teeth on edge more than paging through a book on Rome and seeing the same old perspectives of the Coliseum and the Spanish Steps. If the photographer and the person who wrote the text (there will always be some text in a pictorial travel book) has not introduced some personal theme or perspective then you don't really have a travel book worthy of the name.

Excellent examples are the photographic scrapbooks of Peter Beard who resided in East Africa and was obsessed with elephants. You won't find one photo of the Serengeti Plain or Kilimanjaro in any of his books, which is why he such a much-collected author and photographer and why you will struggle to find a copy of these long out-of-print masterpieces.
About the Author
Justine has been a journalist for 20 years and is a contributor to Just The Planet the online luxury travel magazine for independent travelers.
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