Collecting Guidebooks and Travel Books

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
Sir John Mandeville wrote a guidebook in 1356 that was “not to be trusted even when he is telling the truth."

I wandered the Acropolis of Athens with a current guidebook that refers to the statue of Athena in the Parthenon as “being known only by descriptions and copies.”

But I also carried Pausanias’ Description of Greece, written in 170 CE, in which he wrote that “The statue of Athena stands upright in an ankle-length tunic…”

Using both guidebooks gave me a stereoscopic view; two writers seeing what I saw but two millennia apart.

Pausanias, still in print, was probably the first to write a book advising travelers, constantly using the word “you;” as opposed to books describing the writer’s travels for the sake of entertainment or health or religion, which used “I.” For me, guidebooks are objective reporting, helping the reader; travel books are usually a subjective narrative, recounting personal experiences. I collect old guidebooks because they are a time machine, describing sights and cultures that often no longer exist. And luckily many are on Biblio, often in early editions.

Easily obtained is Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, the first major guidebook in English, published in 1356. His reports were critiqued by the Encyclopedia Britannica which sums him up as “not to be trusted even when he is telling the truth.” If Mandeville faked much of his reportage, then the greatest guidebook writer–Karl Baedeker–was the complete opposite. His name is one of the few to enter the dictionary: my Webster defines it as “any travel guide.” Baedeker may well be the most popular guidebooks for collectors; they are well written, accurate, and there are a lot of them.  My favorite anecdote about them was that the German Air Force used them to decide which British cities to bomb in WWII. His first book, ironically, was the 1832 A Handbook for Travelers in a Hurry!

My favorite giver of advice was Samuel Purchas, who wrote about 5,000 pages about the known world in the 1600′s, yet never traveled more than 200 miles from his home in Essex! His Purchas His Pilgrimes is still available. A contemporary, Thomas Cook, wrote many guidebooks, mainly to promote his famous travel agency. His name too has entered the language: “Cook’s Tour” is a guided but cursory one.

The 19th century was the peak of interesting guidebook (and travel) writing. Bayard Taylor observed in the 1856 edition of Views-A-Foot that “…with Murray’s handbook (a popular British guide) open in their hands they sat and read about the very towns they were passing, scarcely lifting their eyes to the read scenes, except to observe that it was very nice.”

Today my favorites are the Frommer guides, written from the late 1940s to now, since they transmit an enthusiasm that makes you want to go wherever they write about.

Travel as fun is a 20th century concept. If you look up the word in a Webster, you will find that it comes from an old Roman word for a form of torture. (It still means “difficult;” hence the English “travail,” the Spanish “trabajo,” etc.)

If guides seem too limited for your collection, add travel books. Many famous writers wrote travel books easily found on the web. In America, the granddaddy is Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, but wondrous old copies of the travel books of Dickens, Voltaire, Sterne, Defoe, Boswell, Smollett, Goldsmith, Hugo, Dumas, and others are easily found.

For those interested in more details and a history of guidebooks and travel writing, I suggest Eric Friedheim’s Travel Agents, which has a chapter on “Guidebooks and Travel Writing.”

This entry was written by and posted on August 5, 2010 at 2:43 pm, filed under Book Collecting and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink

2 Responses to “Collecting Guidebooks and Travel Books”

  1. Anna Marie

    Wow! I want to read books like these ones. I don’t have time coz I’m busy with my work but I hope someday I could read one.

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