Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Two Small Guidebooks to the City of Angels

My family will be spending some time in Southern California in the near future -- mostly for theme-park activities in the Anaheim area, but with side trips elsewhere -- so I've been reading up on the various tourist traps in the vicinity. Along the way, I read two directly competitive pocket guides to Los Angeles, and thought that I might as well look at them together.

Frommer's Los Angeles Day by Day was written by Garth Mueller, and -- at the time it was published, last year -- came out from a venerable publishing house with which I am also associated. (Said venerable publishing house has since sold off that piece of its operations to the not nearly as venerable but vastly cash-rich data octopus Google.) It's pocket-sized -- slim but taller than a mass-market book, with a large fold-out map in a pocket inside the back cover and several other maps of specific areas in a three-panel fold-out from the front cover.

It's organized by interest rather than geographically, with chapters on shopping, dining, lodging, nightlife, outdoor activities, and arts & entertainment. But it opens with the author's curated "best of" recommendations -- first, suggested itineraries for one-, two-, or three-day trips, and then a half-dozen specialized day trips for particular interests (fans of movies, architecture, rock music, art, shopping, eating, or those traveling with kids). Assuming that Mueller's expertise is what it should be -- which I can't evaluate at this point since I haven't made the trip yet (and I don't expect to follow any of these suggested tours explicitly, anyway) -- this is the most useful part of Day by Day, giving travelers a template to start from when they plan their days in LA.

It has a crisp, authoritative look, with "tabs" for each section embedded in a color bar to make thumbing through easier, and there's a lot of color photos, though many of them are presented postage-stamp-size. The two-column layout presents a lot of data in a way that keeps it all easy to follow, and occasional sidebars give more detail on specific points.

The bulk of the book is written in capsule-review style, like listings in Time Out -- entirely useful, highly factual, but a bit dry to read straight through. The day-trips are more lively, with more anecdotes and factoids to spice them up. But this isn't a book to be read straight through to begin with; it's meant to be a reference and a guide, with each reader gravitating to the sections that she is most interested in. And, for that, it's very usable, with good maps embedded in the text to show where various places are in relation to each other. This book would be a bit bulky for a pants pocket, but it could easily go into a jacket, purse, or glove compartment for a trip around the city. Between the maps and the curated tours, it's an excellent (and clearly opinionated) guide to LA.

Lonely Planet Pocket Los Angeles has a similar form-factor: it's shorter (closer to the height of a mass-market), and both slightly thicker and deeper, with marginally thicker paper than Frommer's. Its inside-back-cover fold-out map has more density -- one side is mostly taken up by a listing of places, so it can function semi-independently from the book -- but lacks the large area maps Frommer's does. (Lonely Planet's map is also paper, and tears out from the book, while Frommer's is plasticized and sits in a clear plastic pocket in the back of that book.)

Lonely Planet is also clearly hipper than Frommer's is, from the open-shirted author photo of Adam Skolnick to its focus on neighborhoods (the trendier the better). It does have a quick "do this each day" section up front, possibly to compete with Frommer's, but the book is primarily organized geographically rather than by interest, starting with Hollywood and circling around to hit Beverly Hills, Downtown, Santa Monica, Burbank, and excursions to points further away.

Lonely Planet feels like it gives more space to shopping and nightlife -- again, aiming at a hipper crowd than Frommer's -- so visitors with those items high on their agenda will want to gravitate in this direction. It also is quite thorough in differentiating between the different strands of nightlife: old Hollywood, new Hollywood, LGBT, and so on -- to give the reader the best guidance as to exactly which trendy club she will be most comfortable in. But all that hip trendiness can make an older, stodgier, less shopping-obsessed reader -- your humble correspondent, for one example -- feel bored and out of place; this is not a guide for those who don't intend to make hitting boutiques and/or nightclubs a major part of their LA itinerary.

The design is bright and modern, with pastel headers and sidebars to organize sections, and lots of color photography -- as expected from Lonely Planet, it's entirely up-to-date in both tone and style. For readers who are equally up-to-date, this is the perfect guide to LA. (The rest of us may want something a bit more sedate.)

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