Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook by Nicholas T Parsons - review by Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson

The Birth of Baedeker

Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook


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A guidebook is a good reflection of the age in which it is written: how people travel, why they travel, where they go and what they do when they get there are all riveting morsels of social history. Indeed, there is a danger that guides can be so informative that they replace the real thing: ‘The orthodox Baedeker-bestarred Italy – which is all that I have yet seen – delights me so much that I can well afford to leave the Italian Italy for another time’, as E M Forster said.

Initially guides were written more as official documents, and seen as books of learning, than as the consumer articles they have become; a desire to understand the world was probably behind the creation of the first guides, and the exotic experiences of other countries could be tempered by the reassuring words of a compatriot. The first known guide to have survived is that of Pausanias on Greece, written in the mid second century AD (it is not infallible but there are remarkably few errors).

During Byzantine rule (330–614 AD), ‘Biblical tourism’ to the Holy Land flourished, with pilgrims using guides that had little aesthetic evaluation or judgement; medieval guides were full of relics, wonders, saints and miracles and the number of pilgrims rose during the Middle Ages when Santiago de Compostela became an important

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