Saturday, May 28, 2011

Evil guidebooks

I found the following paragraphs in the book Presence of mind by Dirk van Weelden. It is interesting to speculate on the interaction between physical reality and its description in a guidebook. Are guidebooks evil? Or is it true what Goethe says: We only see what we know. - I translate that into: We do not notice things unless we are shown what to look at. Without the guidance of Marcel Minnaert many things would have stayed invisible for me!

Tourists do leave their country, but they never arrive in the country of destination. The plane lands and the tourist disembarks with his guidebook under his arm. This document contains maps and all sorts of useful information about transport, hotels and local legislation.

But a guidebook offers more: it exorcises one danger that threatens the tourist. Because his presence is defined by non-involvement and not-taking-part the tourist might be overwhelmed by the void, the futility of his presence so far from his normal involved and participatory existence. Thanks to the guidebook the tourist has something to do and his stay is given a goal.

The travel book guides the tourist through an imaginary country, that exists only on paper and in the minds of tourists and tour guides. This imaginary country is densely populated with trivia from history and folklore. Enough facts, stories and fabrications to smother the painful absurdity of the tourist status.

The travel guide cushions the tourists against the shock of physical arrival at his destination. This shock could destroy his tourist status and could have far-reaching consequences: suddenly he has emigrated and has been deprived of his job, his friends and his normal place of residence!

Something one must avoid at all costs is to start believing the guidebook during the trip. An ideal guidebook should feel like a satire of its own presence with its abundance of surreal detail, ludicrous legends, simplifications and exaggerations. The proper use of a guidebook should cause constant misunderstandings and should force the tourist into conversations with local residents through its transparent and hysterical misrepresentation of facts. A guidebook should make one's meaningless presence in other people's countries bearable and enjoyable through amusing idle stories.

Someone who uses a guidebook in this manner has ceased to be a tourist and has become a traveller. He has become someone who has temporarily emigrated, has temporarily exiled himself and has become unemployed without a fixed place of residence - while travelling through a foreign land. A traveller has no goal other than the endpoint of his trip - if there is an endpoint. Travelling is a movement and this movement is an end in itself. A traveller is someone who surrenders to his journey, with or without a travel guide in his pocket.

Dirk van Weelden - Tegenwoordigheid van geest - De bezige bij - 1989


  1. Dirk Van Weelden's words anger me. They are pretentious. Lets get all realist here. You get of the plane in a country where you may not speak the language and are uncomfortable; they guide book can be a necessary evil that offers you some information about where your going.

    You could try immerse yourself in the culture blindly, but on a practical level your likely to end up in a bad (some times dangerous) part of town having been ripped of by a taxi driver.

    The only way you get to know a place is to live there for a good long while, any kind of holiday break to a place is not going to give you this opportunity.

    That line about becoming a traveller....yuk - your still a tourist; don't worry about it and enjoy your holiday.

  2. @escooler: I like your bicycle actions!

    I agree with your critique but still I like the piece by Van Weelden. I like the questions it raises:

    - How helpful can any guidebook be if your time is limited?
    - Harold Bloom says that we need a "canon" of literature to show us what is worth reading - because life is limited and we cannot read all, so we should read the best. I agree with that.
    - On the other hand - I intensely dislike the books "1000 places to see before you die". Is that a real valid canon of "places to visit"? Or is it just hype and marketing?