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Showing posts tagged Powells.com
This is what today looks like.
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
What’s the strangest or most interesting job you’ve ever had?
I once sold knock-off perfumes in parking lots all over Los Angeles. I’d seen an ad in the paper. I showed up for an interview, which consisted of myself and 40 other people jammed into a room and shown wads of money that could be ours if we just broke the law a few hours a day. We were told not to worry if we got arrested, that the company would bail us out. We were given a script that was invasive, yet compelling, with which to approach customers as they walked out of Walmart: Does your girlfriend wear perfume? Yeah? What kind? Okay, but I’m selling Obsesssion for half as much. Smells the exact same; I got about 50 bottles in the trunk of my car. Surprisingly, the job wasn’t that hard. The perfume really did smell the same and who doesn’t want to save a buck or two? I probably made more money doing that job than I have as a writer in all my years since, combined.
Five books I love but am too scared to reread lest I hate them now, thus forcing myself to question which aesthetic (Fiona then, Fiona now) to trust, since it’s always possible I have become too demanding, fussy, implacable, and impatient over the years:
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
A Death in the Family by James Agee
Light in August by William Faulkner
Angels by Denis Johnson
U and I by Nicholson Baker
Read the rest of our Q&A with Fiona Maazel: http://powells.us/11xNmcy
Would you rather tour the Eiffel Tower or enjoy an elephant ride in the Mekong Delta?
Get inspired. Select DK Eyewitness Travel Guide titles are now 20% off: http://powells.us/10ztt2g
April is National Poetry Month!
15% off all poetry — we’ve handpicked some of our favorite collections to get you started: http://powells.us/10vb9Hr