Curious Travel Books Plumb the Arcane and Imaginary

November 25, 2006 | 9 books mentioned 2 2 min read

Travel guides are often utilitarian. The prose alternates between bubbly praise for “must see” attractions or “hidden gems” and parental tones of warning admonishing would be tourists to stay out of areas too dangerous for sore thumbs from overseas. Even though some books cater to the upscale, spare-no-expense traveler and others to the off-the-beaten-path adventure seeker, they are almost always highly formulaic, making them perfect fodder for satirists and clever take-offs.

coverTake, for example, the Lonely Planet guide to Micronations, which takes us to homemade nations like The Principality of Sealand, the Northern Forest Archipelago, and the Kingdom of Romkerhall. These nations, which often exist only in the minds of their inhabitants, are unlikely to become tourist destinations, but the stories of people who have tried to remove themselves from our planet-wide system of independent states are interesting nonetheless.

coverA less informative and more jocular take on the travel guide comes from the Chronicle Books Jetlag Travel Guides which instruct readers on the peculiarities of places like San Sombrero: A Land of Carnivals, Cocktails and Coups, Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring, and Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. Though the books lean heavily on the humor of stereotypes, they also wring plenty of laughs out of the many pitfalls of traveling.

coverMore of a fake atlas than a fake travel book, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places provides information on locales that definitively do not exist yet are rich enough in detail and lore to be treated as though they do. “They range from the orc-ridden wastes of Tolkien’s Middle-earth to the languorous shores of Homer’s Island of the Lotus-Eaters.” A good companion to this one might be You Are Here, whose description says “maps need not just show continents and oceans: there are maps to heaven and hell; to happiness and despair; maps of moods, matrimony, and mythological places. There are maps to popular culture, from Gulliver’s Island to Gilligan’s Island.”

coverThen there are the travel books that were created in all seriousness but which recent geopolitical events have made absurd, like the Bradt Travel Guide to Iraq, which, no joke, was a big seller at the bookstore where I worked in the few months after the American invasion. The Bradt Travel Guide to North Korea would be another good one for the truly adventurous traveler.

Update:In the comments, j. godsey points us to another clever travel book, the Moon Handbooks guide to the Moon

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. The Bradt folks are pretty amazing. I interviewed Hilary Bradt, the founder, for the big piece on travel guides I did for PW — sadly, it mostly got cut for space, but she has a completely unique, fascinating philosophy.

    The Iraq guide has been one of their best-sellers — it's not just rubberneckers, but when there's a war, that means thousands of relief workers and government types and (natch) soldiers are going to a country. The Bradt Guides want to help people understand these places (and help humanize them for people seeing them on the news), and also to encourage tourism as a mode of recovery for places that have been devastated by upheaval, be it natural disasters or dictatorships, etc. They are the only company approaching travel guides this way (that I found anyway), although certainly some of the others have begun to focus on sustainability (Lonely Planet, in particular) and refelecting instability on the ground.

    All the publishers I talked to felt very stongly that travel is Important, with a capital I, and were passionate about it.

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