Pre-Internet, these books inspired me to see the world and, in an age before GPS and location tracking, often felt like the only lifeline between myself and planet Earth. They helped me feel as if I were traveling before I could, and now, in these strange, restrictive times, they’re helping me do the same while I can’t. Throwing them away feels almost like a moral dilemma, as if I might be dismissing an old, trusted friend for the company of a newer, cooler prospect.
If William Blake saw a world in a grain of sand, I’ve forever seen it in travel guides, any of which seems to me to hold endless possibilities between its covers. Aside from the requisite hotel/restaurant/attraction information, I, especially as a young traveler, was fascinated by the insider knowledge they contained, details I hoped desperately I would one day need. Things like electricity conversion charts, embassy information, telephone dialing instructions, traveler’s check advice, international television channel breakdowns, menu translations, cultural etiquette tips, foldout maps and clothing size charts. This is common, easily obtainable, largely outdated intel today, but back then, beyond the few travel shows on television and a handful of magazines, these books were one of the rare places one could even find this magical lexicon. They felt like handbooks to some incredibly exclusive club.
Before the Internet allowed us to see every street, practically taste every meal and all but take the trip before we even stepped foot on a plane, these books doled out just enough detail to help us plan yet still believe it was possible to discover something once there — wherever “there” was. Some didn’t even include photographs, just comically unhelpful sketches barely above the skill level of a bad courtroom artist. Others contained no graphics whatsoever, a fact that only served to ramp up my curiosity.
It was not until I left for Paris to study French at age 22 that these books shifted from curiosities to necessities. Following the advice of a well-traveled family friend, I purchased a “Plan de Paris par Arrondissement” on my first morning there, and had I been carrying around the Rosetta stone itself, I could not have been more exhilarated by the thought of what it would unlock. A small, stout book slightly bigger than a deck of cards and seemingly 3,000 times the weight of one, it outlined every single street in the city and its suburbs; streets that I had dreamed about since childhood and that, thanks to this dense little book, I spent the entire trip exploring.
I carried it everywhere for that and many, many subsequent trips, and it has become a victim of both my enthusiasm and my neglect. It’s oily and puckered with literal blood, sweat, tears, wine, sunscreen, cheese, ink, cocktails and even rain. Ancient crumbs from macarons and baguettes prevent it from closing fully. The pages long ago liberated themselves from the spine (I inevitably spend a good part of my Paris escapades retrieving them from wherever they’ve flown and shoving them back between the jacket until they escape again), its plastic cover split sometime in the late ’90s, and the glue that held the metro map to the back inside cover simply dissolved at some point. (Inexplicably, that map has been lost countless times, but like some kind of homing pigeon always finds its way back into the folds of the book.) Eventually, my “Plan de Paris” became so disordered that I began taking only the pages of the arrondissements I anticipated visiting, a strategy that I soon realized, after absent-mindedly wandering into different districts, is like wearing only the shoe of the foot on which you think you’ll take the most steps.
A few years after that first trip, I found an enormous collection of guidebooks in a neighborhood thrift shop while walking to work. Unable to resist (Fodor’s! Frommer’s! Insight! Steves!), I bought them and lugged them for what felt like miles in two enormous shopping bags. Feeling as if I were carrying bags full of dreams, I arrived at work, crimson with exhaustion but beaming with excitement. As I showed my colleagues the guides to Sweden and India and Bangkok and everywhere else, they looked at me as if I’d picked up a 747 and wanted to store it in the break room. It was clear they were wondering why a 25-year-old living paycheck to paycheck had just purchased multiple travel guides for places to which she had no immediate plans to travel.
Eventually, as I knew we would, these books and I found ourselves in the countries they documented. Many, like the Paris map book, were used so much that they are no longer books as much as stacks of mixed-up sheets held together by memory. The guides that have yet to be used, on the other hand, sit fully intact, bound together by potential.
I’m fully aware of all the apps, sites and media tools I can use to replace all my books in a single swoop. But when I hold my crumbling copy of “Plan de Paris par Arrondissement,” I can feel the heat of the summer day I bought it, see the lines on the face of the grumpy tobacco shop owner who sold it to me and feel all the aspirations I had not only for that trip, but for all the trips I would ever take. Addresses and phone numbers of dorms and friends and banks and train stations and people met on buses are etched throughout. Pulling this and other guides down from the shelf — as I have done almost obsessively during the lockdown — often yields a flutter of ephemera accumulated in the frenzy of travel: metro tickets, sugar wrappers, itineraries, business cards, boarding passes, stamps, coasters, receipts, room keys and even coins that have moored themselves there, both purposely and accidentally.
Sometimes, when I look at these shelves, all I can see are the titles of the places I still haven’t been, and I think in many ways, that’s the point. Guidebooks show us that no matter how well traveled we are, we are all novices in some way. There is always something more to see: one more street, one more restaurant, one more store, one more museum, one more city, one more country. And so, more than likely, my guidebooks will not be a part of the Great Pandemic Clearance of 2020. In a time when we are literally confined to four walls, they remain proof that the world is — or, at least, will be again — there for the taking.