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Guides

I love travel guides. Starting when I was a college student bouncing around Europe, through trips with friends and later family, and again now, whether I'm traveling for business or for pleasure, I've always traveled with guide books. They help figure out what's worth visiting, how to visit it, and what's worth noticing about it.


There are times when I've followed them slavishly (have I hit all the three-star sights in this city?) and other times when I've only dipped in from time to time. Sometimes I simply want to know what that amazing building across the square is, sometimes I just want to find something interesting near me, sometimes I want the meticulous, even pedantic, description of every chapel in a church. Sometimes I want the best local restaurant, sometimes just a snack.

Much as I love them, they're not perfect. I don't want to walk around with four books all day, maniacally cross-referencing them to each other and to the map on my phone. I don't want to spend every evening preparing my next day's itinerary. But I also don't want to follow the beaten path... not just because my snobby self-image demands I be an intrepid and independent traveler rather than an ovine tourist, but because I have specific interests and non-interests, things I've seen before and do or don't want to see again, or simply because my feet are tired and I want someplace pleasant to sit.

Then there's always the question of which guide(s) to use. One has great cutaway views of buildings; another has charming walks down side streets; yet another somehow manages to recommend restaurants I like, consistently. The easy solution — which I'll confess to — is to bring along too many. Especially easy when you're driving.

And how about background reading? Surely, when I'm in Rome, I'll want to learn more about Borromini or about the Forum or about Mussolini. Some guides try to fill that need with extensive front matter or sidebars. But sometimes I bring my own supplementary reading along. Does that make it a guidebook?

Now, it seems obvious that electronic guides should improve on paper guides. After all, gigabytes of text, images, audio, and video fit in your pocket, and can be updated continuously; your interests, current location, and past activities can inform what's presented to you; fellow travelers can contribute to crowdsourced information and opinions; and you can connect in real time to friends, locals, and experts. But that hasn't happened. Every electronic resource I've tried to use has been less useful than paper guides. Rather than try to think up something better from scratch, I've decided that I should first try to understand what paper guides do right.

I love travel guides. And I want to understand them better. That's what this blog is about.

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