The Travel Book in the Electronic Age

Look for the 2016 in the top right to be sure that you're getting a new format 2016 edition of these excellent smaller sized guide books.
Look for the 2016 in the top right to be sure that you’re getting a new format 2016 edition of these excellent smaller sized guide books.

Do you remember the ‘good old days’ of impenetrably thick and boring travel guide-books?  Huge big 1 – 2″ thick books, with almost no pictures anywhere, and of obscured (they would often not show publication dates) and highly dubious up-to-date-ness.  They weighed a ton, were a great cure for insomnia, and cost massive amounts of money.

Modern ‘direct to plate’ printing methods allowed for a revolution in book publishing, allowing high quality high-color books to be produced affordably, and perhaps the epitome of these have always been the Dorling Kindersley range of Eyewitness books, first appearing in 1988, and becoming more prevalent in the years subsequently.

Dorling Kindersley were established in the UK in 1974, and in 1999 were bought by Pearson (Penguin), which in turn merged to become Penguin Random House in 2013.  The Dorling Kindersley brand seems to now be referred to more commonly as DK.

At first I found it hard to take the DK Eyewitness travel guides seriously.  There were so many attractive illustrations, maps, and diagrams that it was hard to use them as a sleeping aid, and it took quite a mental leap to realize that a travel guide book could be easy on the eye, well laid out, and interesting, and still be authoritative and helpful.

Over the years I bought many of the Eyewitness guides.  They were good, and while smaller and lighter than the worst of the old fashioned books (often with names beginning with the letter ‘F’) they were still appreciably heavy and bulky – about 5″ x 8.5″ and weighing up to 1.25lb – occasionally even more.  If you were on a trip to multiple major cities/countries, the thought of packing three or four such guides became very unappealing.

With our growing reliance on phones and tablets for so much of our travel research, I’ve been keen to find something that is smaller and lighter, more convenient and portable.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t find a phone or tablet ideal when walking the streets – it is harder to flip from one marked page in one section of a guide to another marked section somewhere else, for example, and sometimes the sunlight washes out the screen, and other times the rain makes me a bit anxious about letting it all get wet.  Plus I seem to be more clumsy when walking on foreign streets and more likely to drop things – no big deal with a book, but if it is an expensive phone or tablet, there’s always a big risk of smashing the screen.

DK have responded to that need with a smaller series of ‘overview’ books, what they call their “Top 10” series.  First introduced in 2002, they’ve now been completed revised and had additional content and graphics added to them, as well as being given a ‘cleaner’ and ‘more modern’ design.

I selected their new Paris guide, to prepare for time in Paris prior to our Travel Insider Bordeaux cruise this July, and also checked through a number of the others in the series too.  They average a mere 0.6lb per guide book – about half the weight of a ‘full’ Eyewitness guide, lighter than most tablets, and definitely easier to access/use.

They are also more compact – 4″ x 7.5″ – a bit taller and a bit narrower than a standard paperback, making it easier to shove in a pocket.

The books list for US$15, or C$15 – an interesting example of pricing where the books are actually cheaper in Canada than the US – for such a long time, books in Canada have been much more expensive than in the US.  I’m not sure if this is a short term aberration caused by shifting exchange rates or a longer term trend, either way, the book is fairly priced in the US and even more fairly priced in Canada.

Amazon have them nicely discounted, often for less than $10, and they also offer them in Kindle format too at the acceptably fair price of $7.99 each.  So if you’re now firmly in the eBook camp, you don’t have to compromise, you can get them in ‘weightless’ eBook format too.  A word of caution, wherever you choose to buy them – the newly designed 2016 series is only being released sequentially at present, starting from the beginning of February, so be sure before buying any titles that they are the new 2016 edition, rather than an earlier edition in the older format.

DK promise to update all the books in the series each year, and the year of the edition is prominently shown on the cover rather than buried away on an inner page somewhere.

About the Books

As the series name implies, these are in significant part ‘books of lists’ rather than comprehensive guides to everything in a city or region.  They typically have 17 or 18 lists in the list section, ranging from churches and museums to volcanoes and waterfalls (in the case of the Iceland guide) or river sights and ‘Royal London’ for London, and so on, with mild tailoring to each different destination.  They also have two ‘built in’ maps that fold out of the front and back covers, and a separate removable laminated map (great for in the rain).  Most titles also show major transportation options in the city as well.

Although many of the lists are lists of things you might want to see, they are not necessarily lists of near-to-each-other things to see as part of a day or half day of exploring.  But the books mix in walking itineraries with their lists, and so they end up with large amounts of each.

The books seem to have almost half assigned to ‘Top Ten’ lists, another almost half assigned to area/regional information like a traditional guidebook, and then some general ‘stuff’ about the place, getting there, maybe some phrases if English isn’t the applicable language, and so on.  The ‘Places to Stay’ section in particular has been fairly thoroughly obsoleted by so many online accommodation directories and booking engines, and I’d rather see those 10 – 12 pages either omitted to save space/weight, or else used for more touring information.

Some of the top ten lists are obviously very hard to put together.  The top ten museums in Paris?  Wikipedia lists 153 museums within the city, and you don’t have to go too far out of the city limits before encountering more.  But perhaps this is also all the more reason to value the list of ten – how can you hope to see a significant share of the 153 museums? Perhaps it is better to accept someone else’s advice about the best ten, and then modify that list based on any special interests you have.

Their lists usually make sense, too.  I checked the museum list in London, it is an excellent list with all the ‘usual suspects’ on it as well as a nice bonus that not many people know about – Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Using a Top 10 Guide

I see these books as being useful in two different parts of one’s travels and planning.  Firstly, when you’re thinking of what you’d like to see and do before traveling somewhere, these are great as idea generators – both for cities you’ve been to many times (sometimes it is hard to think of what remains to be seen or done in a familiar destination, even though you know, for sure, there’s much you’ve not yet seen) and of course for cities you’re visiting the first time.

Maybe you see something that sparks a chain of thoughts and leads you, courtesy of Google, Wikipedia, etc, to considering something that wasn’t in the book, but which something that was in the book caused you to then go and find.  If you follow the tortuous logic of that sentence, you’ll agree that being lead to something else is still a ‘win’ for the book.

And then, when you’re in-country, it is a great resource to have in your daily carry bag, or preloaded onto your tablet, phone, or Kindle eBook reader.  You’ve got a reasonably good map and a whole lot of information at your fingertips, in a convenient size, and with not too much weight, as you stroll around during your days.

The reality of the old fashioned guide books is that, even when they were the ‘only game in town’, I seldom read more than very little of the material inside them, and never traveled with them.  Now, with the DK Top 10 Guides, you have something you actually can and will use, for trip planning and then when actually enjoying your travels.

2 thoughts on “The Travel Book in the Electronic Age”

  1. I’ve been using these books (“regular” and the top 10) for years too and they’re by far my favorite. It’s been a few years since I’ve traveled but I liked that they back of the books offered various walks though the cities. In Prague, I think we followed all of them!

  2. Hi David, I’ve been using these Top Ten guides since 2006 – one of my London friends was VERY impressed with the London edition because of some of the not-as-well known places that were included. I’ve been using them (including Vienna, Prague and Budapest for your 2008 Christmas Markets river cruise!) ever since. I just went to Morocco in November and had an old Eyewitness guide to the country, but ordered the latest edition and returned it to Amazon – there was very little that had changed for that particular country and no Top Ten guide. Since I was on a tour with Overseas Adventure Travel I wasn’t worried about hotels and meals. I’m headed to Sicily soon and the Top Ten got me more excited than the Eyewitness Guide. Go figure! So I heartily agree with your article! They are very useful. I never use the books that start with “F” or “RS” any longer!

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