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The Futility of Fact

The first thing you discover when you write a guidebook is this: You are wrong about everything.

I've spent the past several years updating travel guides. It quickly becomes apparent that whoever wrote the previous edition of the book you're working on was an idiot, even (especially) if that person was you.

This is partly because of the inconvenient fact that books take a long time to publish, and places change quickly. A guidebook's shelf life may be three or four years, so anything wrong stays wrong for a while. People will write in to let me know the ferry tickets cost two dollars more than the book says, or that there is no crayfish risotto on the menu, and the Rauschenberg goat sculpture is not in the middle of the room or even in that museum at all. This is of course very helpful.

Then there's the other kind of wrong, when the author's perception of a place simply doesn't match the reader's. One person's adorable B&B is another's floral nightmare.One person's adorable B&B is another's floral nightmare. Where you see an edgy, no-frills dive bar, somebody else sees the bathroom in Trainspotting. (It is also wrong to use the words "edgy" and "no-frills." "Floral" is OK.) Heisenberg figures in, too, sometimes: by observing and describing a thing, you've magically added it to the backpacker trail, and now it's ruined.

Making a guidebook, in other words, is — at least for the moderately neurotic author — an acute lesson in the impossibility of capturing "truth" or "fact" in writing, of ever really communicating a vision or experience, never mind a sense of what the food is like. The second you record a fact it squirms away, becomes a fiction.

Guidebook writing can also be exhausting work, but anybody who's ever had a real job will only roll their eyes when you bring that up, and rightly so. Like being a food critic or a fashion model, it's a hard job to complain about. People see six weeks of this:


Not six weeks of this:


(For a hilarious and heartfelt examination of what it's like to travel and write for a living, I recommend Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer.)

So if it's an impossible pursuit, why does anyone do it? What is the point?

Well, arguably there is no point and nobody will be doing it for much longer. The news is full of vanishing guidebooks. Lonely Planet's been sold at a loss to an American digital media company; Google gave up on print editions of Frommer's. But I'm optimistic, not because of the usual arguments (books don't need batteries!, etc.) but because I like to think people want more than updated facts when they travel.

In Reality Hunger, David Shields, probably quoting someone else, writes this about essays: "I seek to fill a place that once had meaning with meaning again." Is it a stretch to claim this goal for travel writing? (Well, yes. But still!) Wouldn't an old pile of rocks just be an old pile of rocks if someone hadn't come along and explained to you why you're looking at it? Not just what time it opens or where to find an authentic and affordable meal afterward, but why you might bother visiting in the first place? Information feeds imagination; without that, a beautiful landscape might be nice to look at but it doesn't make you feel anything.

Granted, it's hard for a humble guidebook to deliver meaning and emotion; people still want to know how much the ferry costs. But we do what we can in the space we're given. I like to think travelers are more than just consumers. Then again, I could be wrong about that.

More from Becky Ohlsen on PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer and critic living in Portland, Oregon. She has written guidebooks to Sweden and the Pacific Northwest as well as reviewed books, film, food, and drink for various publications. Walking Portland is her latest book.

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Becky Ohlsen is the author of Walking Portland: 30 Tours of Stumptown's Funky Neighborhoods, Historic Landmarks, Park Trails, Farmers Markets, and Brewpubs (Walking)

One Response to "The Futility of Fact"

    Erin April 10th, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Becky, this is a wonderful piece that truly captures the guidebook writer's dilemmas.

    And, to speak to your hypothetical in a previous post, most of the 3 a.m.'ers in SF were indeed hired for that USA book, but the carousing was a coincidence. You all were already on the short list and proved to be solid choices! The ability to press on through the wee hours is a good quality (perhaps requisite) in guidebook writers.

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