The first thing you discover when you write a guidebook is this: You are wrong about everything.
I’ve spent the past several years updating travel guides. It quickly becomes apparent that whoever wrote the previous edition of the book you’re working on was an idiot, even (especially) if that person was you.
This is partly because of the inconvenient fact that books take a long time to publish, and places change quickly. A guidebook’s shelf life may be three or four years, so anything wrong stays wrong for a while. People will write in to let me know the ferry tickets cost two dollars more than the book says, or that there is no crayfish risotto on the menu, and the Rauschenberg goat sculpture is not in the middle of the room or even in that museum at all. This is of course very helpful.
Then there’s the other kind of wrong, when the author’s perception of a place simply doesn’t match the reader’s. One person’s adorable B&B is another’s floral nightmare. Where you see an edgy, no-frills dive bar, somebody else sees the bathroom in Trainspotting. (It is also wrong to use the words “edgy” and “no-frills.” “Floral” is OK.) Heisenberg figures in, too, sometimes: by observing and describing a thing, you’ve magically added it to the backpacker trail, and now it’s ruined.
Making a guidebook, in other words, is — at least for the moderately neurotic author — an acute lesson in the impossibility of capturing “truth” or “fact” in writing, of ever really communicating a vision or experience, never mind a sense of what the food is like. The second you record a fact it squirms away, becomes a fiction.
Becky Ohlsen is guest-blogging at Powells.com all week: http://powells.us/11PB7Z1