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A Guidebook Bonanza

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

Travel books, once relegated to the back recesses of most bookstores, are now proudly displayed, and in large numbers.

Each month there are dozens of new titles, from the standard guidebooks to the most esoteric travel subjects.

If you want shopping tips in Siberia, there’s a book. How about a guide to the bridges of North America? No problem. Thinking of walking through Switzerland? There’s a book just for you.

When it comes to the business of travel books about the only thing missing is a guide to the cooking schools of Bulgaria, although I’m convinced that someone somewhere is probably writing it.

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Meeting Needs

Welcome to the age of specialized travel and quality travel books for individual needs.

Most travel books used to fall into one of two categories: guidebooks and “armchair” travel books. Many guidebooks were outdated by the time they hit the shelves.

The armchair travel books were poor sellers, directed at a small audience who wanted to read about a place but didn’t plan to go there.

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Now, most travel guidebooks are outdated. The travel business is so fluid that news becomes obsolete almost as fast as it is dispensed.

Air fares, hotel rates and train schedules are ephemeral at best. You’d do better figuring out foreign exchange rates using a mood ring than by referring to a book written eight months ago and published last week.

Many guidebooks can be misleading. Not only is their information suspect but sometimes the destinations have changed radically.

Practical Information

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However, one finds some notable exceptions. One in particular is the series of Lonely Planet books, more than 60 titles that offer truly practical information on destinations from West Africa and Bolivia to Tahiti.

The books are called “survival kits” and they are. As opposed to many travel guidebooks the Lonely Planet series has been written by travelers who really travel, and who don’t necessarily depend on tourist office propaganda.

For upscale travelers there’s “Courvoisier’s Book of the Best” (edited by Lord Lichfield, written by Sue Carpenter; Salem House Publishers: $9.95). It’s a witty, sometimes condescending consensus by connoisseurs of “class.” Don’t read it for anything other than entertainment.

For example, under the heading “Best Cure for Jet Lag,” the book gives tips from Margaux Hemingway (an all-fruit diet), Barbara Cartland (consume generous amounts of ginseng) and Joan Collins (“take another plane as soon as possible, preferably to where you came from”). But the book is a good conversation piece.

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But if you’re going to buy any guidebook, maintain the proper cynical perspective about its accuracy. Use it as a guide, but don’t depend on it. Things change.

Touch of Humor

There is also a wave of travel humor books. Two of the best are “Savoir Rire: The Humorists’ Guide to France,” and “All in the Same Boat: The Humorists’ Guide to the Ocean Cruise” (Catbird Press: $9.95 each).

Each volume contains 100 selections and illustrations by 80 famous authors and cartoonists. Next year Catbird will publish “In a Fog: The Humorists’ Guide to England,” and “When in Rome: The Humorists’ Guide to Italy.”

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What about armchair travel books? They’re OK, but nowadays most of us take the books with us as we’re heading for Nepal, the Andes or the South Pacific.

We don’t just want to read about someone else’s travel experiences, we want to share them.

Books Worth Noting

Some worth noting:

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--"Paths Less Travelled” (edited by Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen, published by Atheneum: $24.95). The name Richard Bangs may seem familiar; he runs Sobek Tours, one of the better adventure travel operators in the world.

He and Christian Kallen assembled 12 superb writers and gave them their dream assignments to exotic locations. Edward Hoagland traveled through Yemen, Tim Cahill rafted down an Indian river, William Broyles writes about surviving a mountain in the Andes and Tom Robbins confronts the dreaded tsetse fly on a river in Tanzania.

--"Chasing the Glory: Travels Across America” by Michael Parfit (Macmillan: $17.95). This is travel writing at its best. It’s the story of the year Parfit spent crisscrossing America in a single-engine plane.

He covered 25,000 miles along a route first flown by Charles Lindbergh shortly after his 1927 transatlantic flight. This is a book that serves to remind us of the way travel used to be, and for some of us the way travel can still be if we slow down long enough. And the book serves as an inspiration to do just that.

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--"Escape in Style” by Robert Schoolsky (Harper and Row: $24.95) is for those who don’t want to dream about the ultimate vacation but want to take it. Schoolsky has inventoried the world’s most elegant homes and villas, places available to rent for as short as a week or as long as a year.

The book is a product of four years of research, and features such properties as the Great House of Mustique, a lavish triple-decker tree house in Oahu, a private Fijian island and a spectacular oasis in the Cyclades. Perhaps the best news about this full-color coffee-table book is that with few exceptions, most of these places can be rented for an average of $100 per person a night.

Also, many new bookstores in this country are devoted exclusively to travel. Some specialize in selling nothing but detailed maps of specific destinations.

Others sell anything and everything in the world of travel, from travel cookbooks and guides to shopping in exotic places to specialized travel. Whole sections are devoted to travel by bicycle, train and walking.

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Even the Banana Republic stores offer a travel book department.

But my favorite is a store called Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif.

It publishes an extensive catalogue of travel books, but more important, it can recommend the best ones for your specific needs. It’s open until 10 p.m. and can be reached at (415) 927-0960.


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