Travel guides that go beyond the practical
By DANA KLETTER  |  June 21, 2006

Various travel guides serve various functions, which is only right since people travel for a multiplicity of reasons. Business travel has its practical publications with directions to the Chili’s closest to corporate headquarters. Travel guides of the Let’s Go Lichtenstein! variety cater to vacationers, informing them of the proper tip for taxi drivers in Novosibirsk or where to find decent lodging in Machu Picchu.

But a handful of this year’s travel books seem an odd, almost ghoulish enactment of Rene Descartes’s statement that “Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.” These guidebooks have a distinct mission: to introduce readers to not only a place but also a time, and to direct their attention as much to the sights as to the things they cannot see. Some even offer good reasons to never travel at all.

In the category of guides written more for the pilgrim than the tourist is A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York (Roaring Forties Press, 160 pages, $19.95). Author Kevin C. Fitzpatrick provides the basis for a walking — and drinking — tour of Manhattan that follows in the footsteps of the famous Round Table wit. The well-researched book, which began as a Web site, maps out Parker’s life from her childhood on the Upper West Side to the New York landmarks where she and her famous friends launched their barbed bon mots, and the hospitals where she dried out and recovered from her excesses.

It also traces New York’s 20th-century literary legacy through its architecture. Destinations include the beaux-arts and Art Deco edifices that housed the small presses, magazines, and newspapers founded by Parker and her pals, and the speakeasies where they drank themselves into early graves. These would become institutions, like the New Yorker, Random House, and the 21 Club, or legends, like Smart Set and Tony Soma’s Bar.

Fitzpatrick has translated his Web site’s many features, liberally illustrating this elegant book with archival prints, current photos, maps, portraits, poems, and, of course, a recipe for the perfect pre–World War II martini. Roaring Forties Press offers a series of literary guidebooks from Steinbeck’s California to the Transcendentalists’ New England, with more to come.

An entirely different kind of pilgrimage is outlined in Creepy Crawls: A Horror Fiend’s Travel Guide (Santa Monica Press, 312 pages, $16.95), which shows you where all the bodies are buried. Literally. If Evil Dead is your favorite movie, or Christopher Lee is your co-pilot, this one’s for you. Employing the most purple of prose (you can practically hear Vincent Price reading it aloud), the narrator and his unnamed female companion — or as they refer to themselves, “we two appalled explorers of the nethermost limits of blackest moribundity” — visit history’s greatest haunts. Especially fond of cemeteries, catacombs, crime scenes, and above all, alliteration, horror writer Leon Marcelo divides his guidebook into sites historical (“Man-Made Murder,” “Madness and the Macabre”), literary (“Leprous Lords of Laudably Loathsome Letters”), and audiovisual (“Classic Corpse-Mongering Celluloid”).

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Related: Poetic license, The Paris Review Interview, Vol. 1 introduction by Philip Gourevitch, Theatrical progress, More more >
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