Now that Thomas Kohnstamm has revealed that the global uproar over his alleged “plagiarism” wasn’t really all that (he’d just done a “desk update,” which is occasionally standard in the fast-paced Lonely Planet production process), it’s obvious that gadling.com blogger Jeffrey White was right from the beginning: Who f-in cares? White, however, takes it one step further, rejecting the entire genre of guidebooks:
“The Kohnstamm revelation further cements in my mindâ€”and I’m betting in a few of yoursâ€”the belief that guidebooks are by and large a sham … Guidebooks are the CliffNotes of travel writing, nothing more than a hand-holding exercise. They’re good for a few names and a few addresses, some initial info, and maybe even the surprising fun fact … Beyond that, they’re useless. They’re often wrong, more often skewed, and they seek to rob you of the only thing you have as a traveler: your impression.”
As a guidebook author, I’m actually not too upset by this, though obviously, I disagree that all guidebooks are “useless”â€”the maps alone are often worth the sticker price (when they are done accurately and carefully, and when they are designed correctly).
I agree with White, that guidebooks should be used as rough sketches of a region or country, certainly not a “bible” to light readers’ paths. Plus, most travelers (those who don’t travel often, or perceive some risk in their destination choice) legitimately need a little hand-holding; a guidebook can get them to the country, find them a safe, comfortable room, then encourage them to explore on their own. It’s also true that any traveler worth their salt needs to be able to ask a few questions to find a restaurant or bus on their own, especially since it’s guaranteed that by the time a book goes to press, some of the establishments in it will have gone out of business.
Another “threat” to printed guidebooks (as noted by a recent commenter), their impending obsolescence in the face of Internet travel sites, e-books, and online reviews, is, I believe, exaggerated. Guidebook publishers are already rolling with the times, making entire books available online, individual chapters for sale, etc. Savvy travelers combine guidebook info with their own online research. Many authors are responding in their own proactive ways. My coauthor, Randy Wood, and I, for example, started a Nicaragua website and a user forum, where we post updates and answer queries from our readers.
I agree with White’s conclusion: “I hope what the Kohnstamm affair really does is to get people thinking long and hard about relying on a guidebook for anything in the first place.” Maybe knowing that guidebooks aren’t perfect (and come on, who didn’t know this before?) will encourage potentially creative travelers to come out of their shells and maybe even leave their guide in their hotel room for a night, exploring the city on their own.