Review of The Lonely Planet Story by Tony and Maureen Wheeler
Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story by Tony and Maureen Wheeler (Periplus 2005).
One-third of The Lonely Planet Story is an interesting read. Unfortunately, it’s the final third.
In 1972, two British newlyweds traveled overland from London to Sydney. So many people asked about the journey that the young couple, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, typed up a how-to guide titled Across Asia On The Cheap and drove around Australia selling it to bookstores. The rough guide was a hit, and Lonely Planet – the dominant brand in the guidebook industry -- was born.
It’s a great story – the evolution of a mom-and-pop lark into a globe-straddling business. It’s not told well. Nor are any of the other possible storylines presented by the material. The Lonely Planet Story could have been an expressionistic diary of the odd characters encountered on the road, or an eyewitness analysis of mass tourism’s impact on the developing world, or an intimate tale of how a hippie marriage changed with the onset of unimagined wealth.
Instead, the first two-third of the book is filled with paragraphs like:
From La Paz we flew back through Lima and straight on to Quito in Ecuador. We continued up into the Andes and then descended to Guayaquil on the coast and flew out to the Galapagos, where we cruised around enjoying the wildlife attractions which have made the equatorial islands so incredibly interesting. Then it was back to the mainland and down the coast to conclude our South American escape where it had started in Lima.
I’d like to know why the wildlife attractions on the Galapagos Islands were so interesting, but Tony Wheeler, from whose perspective the book is written, doesn’t say. He also fails to explain in even the vaguest terms what he did on his many research trips, although he insists on reciting the itineraries.
Wheeler is a smart guy, but he can’t tell a story. He has no sense of rhythm, drama or character. The book’s pacing is monotonous, characterization is lost in a jungle of names, and there is no dramatic tension. What were the Wheelers trying to achieve? What type of people are they? How has travel changed them? I don’t know, and, after reading a 375-page autobiography, that’s sad.
Around Page 220, the book starts to exhibit some life. Wheeler explains the politics of the guidebook industry and the various obstacles that Lonely Planet faced, including a boycott from activists who were upset about the company’s Burma guide. Some of Wheeler’s business deals were less successful than others, and – in what would have been a fully developed theme in a better book -- Wheeler hints that constant travel may not have been psychologically healthy for his family.
But 220 pages is a long time to wait as Wheeler lists every town he visited in Indonesia. I would have told him to expand the final third of the book – focusing on The Little Business That Could and the couple’s family life – and to condense the first two-thirds into one chapter.
Tony Wheeler may be the Bill Gates of his industry but he's not the Sebastian Junger.
(Note: The book has been released under multiple titles, including Once While Travelling, The Lonely Planet Story and Unlikely Destinations.)
Labels: Travel Writing