Thoughts on the Lonely Planet scandal: Guidebooks are a sham

So, Lonely Planet writer Thomas Kohnstamm, ‘author’ of the guidebook giant’s Colombia title, turns out to be a fraud.

That’s one of the big stories today, as dutifully reported and followed by Gadling’s Aaron. Of course, the travel world has a right to be outraged by this, and that’s including the numerous LP writers out there who simply do what is expected of them and produce honest work.

But I have this question: Who really cares? Is there anyone out there who takes these guidebooks seriously? Who honestly feels his or her confidence in the racket that is the global guidebook industry has been irrevocably shaken? No one? Exactly: We were doubtful from the beginning.

The Kohnstamm revelation further cements in my mind — and I’m betting in a few of yours — the belief that guidebooks are by and large a sham. I know writers for LP, Time Out, Let’s Go, DP and a few others. While certainly I am not suggesting I have first hand knowledge that they are guilty of the kind of intellectual laziness and deceitfulness that should surely turn Thomas Kohnstamm’s name into a punchline, I know them to call in favors, farm out their work, barter, happily receive comps and overall travel in a way that is, well, rather less than incognito (I witnessed once a writer for a well-known guidebook series making a pitiful pitch over e-mail to get a free weekend at a new, five-star Central European hotel by throwing around his title’s name).

This brush is not meant to paint the entire industry and those who write for it. But I’m aiming at a wide enough canvass, those who want to somehow influence our reaction to a place through gross generalizations and trivial detail, while allowing us to fall back on information that somehow always seems to be not quite right – which, of course, the disclaimers more than prepare us for.

Aaron gives us some reasons why we should be outraged by the Kohnstamm affair. They’re thoughtful and well-presented. But we shouldn’t be outraged. And we shouldn’t be surprised.

Guidebooks are the CliffNotes of travel writing, nothing more than a hand-holding exercise. They’re good for a few names and a few addresses, some initial info, and maybe even the surprising fun fact (but you better verify it). Beyond that, they’re useless. They’re often wrong, more often skewed, and they seek to rob you of the only thing you have as a traveler: your impression. How the hell can you come to some conclusion about a place using one of these things? The guidebook views you as an idiot incapable of asking questions: You really can’t figure out how to find a restaurant wherever you are? Stick with it and you’ll be seeing what someone else thinks you should see rather than perhaps what you need to see.

For me to point out the number of times that a guidebook has been wrong would be to point out the well-known. I hope what the Kohnstamm affair really does is to get people thinking long and hard about relying on a guidebook for anything in the first place.