Every traveller I know, no matter how experienced, uses a guidebook in some form or another. Before you protest, let me assure you that I don’t just mean the Lonely Planet’s, Frommer’s or other ubiquitous paper guides. Who among you can say you didn’t do any research before leaving the country, such as by reading blogs (maybe this one?) or, once you had reached your destination, looking up Yelp reviews to find a good restaurant? Have you ever really gone to a new place without any information, ready to discover everything with fresh eyes?
David Bockino tackles this issue in his book, The Guidebook Experiment: Discovering Exploration in a Hyper-Connected World. Bockino is a self-admitted guidebook-ophile. Unfortunately, he also admits to falling prey to that distracting habit of using it as a list, checking off sites as he goes, perhaps without fully appreciating the moments in between. Inspired by the discoveries of Lewis and Clark, Bockino decides to test himself by going to a part of the world with which he has no experience or information, to discover it himself without the help of guidebooks in any form. The setting for his experiment? The neighbouring countries of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.
The book itself has three broad components: a history of the guidebook as a genre, from Pausanias to the modern amateur blogger/ review system; a narrative of the Lewis and Clark expedition which is used as an analogy to the final component; Bockino’s personal narrative as he embarks on his adventure i.e., the guidebook experiment itself.
It’s difficult to express what I want without giving too much away. While I certainly admire the sentiment behind the experiment, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed with the execution. In a way, I believe the author psyched himself out halfway through, and therefore didn’t reach the full potential of what he was trying to achieve. Although Bockino starts strong, he loses steam. Indeed, I found the history of the guidebook medium to be the most personally valuable part of his story.
The concept of understanding how the volume and accessibility of information has changed how we experience travel is an interesting one. While my feelings towards the book itself were lukewarm, it certainly did get me thinking about this aspect of travel. Speaking for myself, I definitely rely on guidebooks to try to maximize my time in a new place. I often only have a few days to explore at a time, and don’t want to waste them only to find out after the fact about all the amazing things I miss. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever treated exploring as a laundry list of sights to see. I think it’s important to always leave room for spontaneity and just going wherever you feel inspired to go in the moment. My approach has generally been to do my research ahead of time and get the sense of what a place has to offer, but then try to keep the guidebook tucked away for when I’m there, unless needed. Once I’m there, I have that background info in mind to help inform me, but can still pick and choose what I want to do in a given day without feeling burdened by a ‘checklist’ or a fear of missing out. Perhaps the one exception for me is with restaurant reviews; I confess that I rely quite heavily on reviews in making restaurant decisions, mainly because I often have a hard time distinguishing, from the outside, what is or is not a good restaurant. I hate paying for a mediocre meal 😉
What I took away personally, as a blogger, was Bockino’s observation of how difficult it can be to express and share one’s personal discoveries or favourite sights, particularly in writing. Often travel writers resort to tired and vague adjectives like ‘amazing’ or ‘mind-blowing’ to try to convey a sentiment that can’t really be properly expressed. I know I’ve confronted this in my own writing, and I sympathize with other writers when I read it. When I’m truly moved by a place or experience, all I want to do is share it, but language can be so limiting.
Overall, then, I enjoyed The Guidebook Experiment mainly for what it made me think about how I travel, how I write about travel, and how I can never truly discover a place that hasn’t already been discovered and probably written about ad nauseum well before I ever got there. Perhaps that’s a disadvantage, but perhaps not. After all, discovering something new for myself is sort of why I travel in the first place, isn’t it?
What do you think? In this age of constant information, and a guidebook for even the most specific niche markets, is it possible to truly discover a new place?