BOOK REVIEWED: Lonely Planet – The World
Ambitious guidebook for the global age distills each nation – and exposes our small horizons
Ever visited planet Earth? If you have, you’re know that it’s a place of varied landscapes, drastically different cultures, and with thousands upon millions of humans all racing around a select few honeypot tourist sites. Lonely Planet’s new guidebook to The World may seem ridiculously ambitious, and in practical terms it is certainly superfluous, but even a quick flick through instantly reveals how few countries even intrepid travellers seek out. It’s a bit of an eye-opener to the planet’s overlooked areas.
“You can’t have everything, where would you put it?”
Comedian Steven Wright’s quip starts off The World, and it’s a similar lightness of touch that continues through the entire book. Barely four paragraphs into the Welcome to the World introduction chapter we’re told that it’s humans, not animals, that have colonised planet Earth, a claim backed up by mentions of the invention of the wheel, the smelting of iron, and the creation of cities. This short and sweet outside-looking-in view is rarely seen outside of the emerging subject of world history, and certainly not before in a guidebook of any kind. But isThe World actually of any practical use for travellers on the ground?
A new perspective
Arguably, The World is the first guidebook any aspiring traveller should look at. Thinking of going on a gap year? ReadThe World and pick some countries that you’ve barely heard of (there are plenty to choose from; two weeks in Bonaire, Pitcairn Island or the Northern Marianas, anyone?). Some countries get more coverage than others, of course, but it’s largely judged on the size of the place; Australia, the USA and France get eight pages (though always include a double-page photo) and other large/often-visited/safari-centric countries (like Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya) get six pages, though most countries get just get two pages. Each section has details like population, language, when to go and at attempt at summarising religion/ethnicity, with a short introduction followed by a rundown of the top sights to see (something that’s hugely subjective and not worth us getting into arguments about). In total there are nearly 1000 photos over 960 pages; it all looks great and reads well.
The point ofThe World is not to give travellers bus times, locations of cheap hotels, and important phone numbers in specific cities or countries, but to make it very clear that our planet is a huge place, and that the beaten track is tiny. Subtitled ‘A Traveller’s Guide to the Planet’, its early ‘If You Like …’ section up top is useful for ranking the planet’s sights on a personal level. It lists five or six key locations under headings like Beach Paradise, Adventure, and Natural Wonders. There are many themes running through The World, and they’re easy to zoom-in on.
However, despite the inclusive feel of the rest of the book, there is a section early on that details five classic trails around the planet, from A Mighty Asian Junket and The Hippy Trail From London To Melbourne (why Melbourne? That’s where Lonely Planet is from) to Road Trippin’ The Americas and Safari Of A Lifetime. This section is odd not because it misses out South America altogether, but because it reinforces the well-trodden tracks that elsewhere The World overcomes. Still, there’s no itinerary called Backpack From Sydney To Cairns With 10,000 Other British Teenagers; the itineraries that are included are fairly intrepid. I would have preferred if this section was either extended to 25+ itineraries, made into a separate book in itself, or dropped altogether; including just five, none of which have any unifying themes, jars with the rest of The World.
Getting off the beaten track
Arguably, the Lonely Planet series of guidebooks, around since the 1970s, has been as responsible as anyone else for helping to concentrate tourism not only in specific countries and cities, but even in specific streets and neighbourhoods (as anyone who’s ever been to Delhi’s Parharganj or Bangkok’s Kao San Road will know).The World helps redress that balance by revealing not only how concentrated tourism is, but how much of the planet most of us are missing; if you can’t get off the beaten track after reading The World, you’re really not trying.