It’s a big, glossy, full-color world out thereMeasuring 27 by 35 centimeters (146 square inches) and weighing about as much as a Shetland sheepdog, “The Travel Book,”from the guidebook publisher Lonely Planet, would be a challenge to travel with. When I saw the package containing our review copy, I thought it was a piece of office equipment.
Unlike its many sister publications, this one isn’t meant to be stuffed into a backpack. It’s a coffee table book with a simple conceit: covering the whole world, with every country getting a two-page photo spread. (As is acknowledged in the introduction, just how many countries there are on earth isn’t as cut-and-dried a matter as you might think; after including non-countries like Greenland and Antarctica, splitting the United Kingdom into three and coming down on the pro-independence side of the Taiwan question, the editors arrive at 230).
The first thing one does upon opening a book like this is flip to one’s country of residence and start quibbling. “Korea, South” is represented by a lovely full-page photo of a Buddha peeking through dark greenery (it’s the photo on the cover of the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Korea guidebook). Four of the five smaller photos are quaintly historical (a temple, a farmers’ dance, a “folk village”); only the fifth, an anonymous cluster of neon, suggests the 20th century, let alone the 21st. I can only say that this does not reflect my experience of Korea. How about a motorcycle barreling down a sidewalk?
No travelogue can escape the Truth vs. Beauty problem. Browsing through this glossy beast, one would think the world was made up of nothing but heartstopping landscapes, charming local color and friendly natives. You’d think there wasn’t a McDonald’s sign on the planet, or an obnoxious drunk. Even Iraq looks like a nice place to be.
That said, there are spectacular photos, and they get plenty of room to spread out. There’s a stunner from Antarctica, of a solitary figure crossing a blue-gold snowscape; a long tableful of ruddy-faced, sleepy-looking Armenian guys mid-meal; and an almost unbelievably vivid ocean view from the Caribbean nation of Anguilla, population 12,738, and that’s without leaving the A’s. One of the book’s pleasures is coming across countries like Anguilla that you hadn’t known even existed. The text says the island is known for “wild goats running amok.” There ― you’ve learned something already.
by David Moll