Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

As one journey ends, another begins. The world's two best-known brands of travel guide have done their bit to confirm the ancient wisdom of the fortune cookie over recent days. While Rough Guides has waved goodbye to the series' co-founder Mark Ellingham after 25 globe-trotting years, Lonely Planet's originators Tony and Maureen Wheeler have sold their brand and its 500-odd titles to BBC Worldwide. Ellingham will move to the independent publisher Profile to set up a strand of "green and ethical" books with co-editor Duncan Clark, the author of the Rough Guide to Ethical Living.

As for the Wheelers, they keep 25 per cent of the company shares. Meanwhile, chieftains at the BBC's commercial arm have an instant hot potato to pass around the boardroom. What should they do about Lonely Planet's contentious guide to Myanmar (Burma)? It offers a full and frank discussion of whether it should exist at all, but still goes on to steer travellers through the despotic domain that the Rough Guides crew always refuse to visit.

Such moral and social dilemmas have re-routed guidebooks for almost two millennia. Connoisseurs of the genre will enjoy an anecdotal but erudite new history by Nicholas T Parsons. Worth the Detour (Sutton, £20) enjoyably traverses the 1,800 years between Pausanias' tour of Greece in 180AD and the smugly bourgeois star system of Michelin – or the prolier-than-thou inverted snobbery of the early (but not current) Rough Guides themselves.

With their global reach and fully wired young, or young-minded, consumers, both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have proved to be path-finders in more ways than one. They have led the long march of reference publishing on to other kinds of platform beyond the printed book. Beyond the compendious websites that they both offer travellers, Lonely Planet has its own TV company and screen time in 100 countries; while the expansion of Rough Guides into artforms as well as places resulted in a vast catalogue of music anthologies.

On two fronts, the latest moves feel like the beginning of the end of an era. BBC Worldwide has evidently purchased a developing online business rather than a manufacturer of print-on-paper bricks. Indeed, the physical guidebook may start to look almost as endangered as some of the furry beasts blinking into the camera in the "wildlife" section of both series. Some of us still only feel safe when travelling if laden with one (or more) heavyweight companions. But this quirk of upbringing and generation will slowly vanish as time passes.

Mark Ellingham's voyage into green publishing opens up the prospect of a far deeper change than the mere accessing of travel tips from net shack, laptop or iPod. If environmental limits on air travel begin to bite, then the period when trippers could not only span the planet but choose between contrasting styles of guidebook will fade fast.

Ellingham and his contemporaries were the pied pipers of affluent vagabondage. Their inviting tunes helped lure millions from cathedral to cocktail bar, from gorge to gallery, in countries their parents could scarcely have imagined. So could his new departure usher in an era of reference books that celebrate stay-at-home satisfactions of a carbon-neutral kind? However admirable, that mission sounds like a tougher sell than traipsing around Bali or Barcelona. As lyricists Sam Lewis and Joe Young asked in 1918 as the victorious US "doughboys" streamed back from the fleshpots of Europe, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Par-ee?" If we face a new age of austerity, even self-chosen, then psychologists as well as publishers will need some three-star answers to that question soon.