The first time I saw a copy of 1000 Places to See Before You Die, it was in the midst of an awkward silence. My aunt sat with the heavy tome after having unwrapped the gift, feeling the weight of the book on her lap and trying to muster a weak smile. 1000 Places is not a neutral object; it’s a travel guide and a treasure trove of far-flung places, sure, but it is also a means by which one might question his or her own mortality. “You will die!” the cover proclaims, and, between those lines, “You have not yet lived!” It is a powerful sentiment, perhaps one best mulled over in quiet contemplation rather than at a family gathering.
That said, it is the book’s title that has helped make it such a success and one of the most popular gift books on the market. With over 3 million copies in print and 25 translations, the book sold well enough to merit a full-color second edition, which includes more than 200 new locations, including Lebanon, Croatia and Estonia. It has joined the canon of classic reference tomes that earn periodic updates and cozy homes on the bookshelf next to the thesaurus. It is sure to land under many trees this year. So what has made this travel guide, first published only eight years ago, so essential? And who are the hordes of buyers scooping it up?
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“Some people have really taken it to heart,” says author Patricia Schultz, who dreamed up the idea for 1000 Places in the late ‘90s after working for several years as a prolific travel writer. “People come to me when I do signings and say they have embraced it like the Bible. They have showed me these dog-eared, old coffee stained books where they have highlighted in yellow all the places they want to go…There are blogs about visiting every place, people who color code their whole lives around the book.”
Most readers aren’t so diehard, admits Schultz, 57. But she says she consciously chose the title to shock people — to get them to go somewhere other than the couch. “When the book began, we were calling it 100 Drop-Dead Places, but that would have just covered all the basics,” she says. “So we added the extra zero, and immediately I had a panic-attack. But soon it was a challenge to cut the list down to just 1000 places. The title was considered really alarming in 2003 when the first book came out. People told me, the book will never sell, you’re crazy, you can’t say ‘die’ in the title. It was so close to 9/11 then, and people were more fearful.”
“Generally the fragility of our life is something we are aware of but don’t talk about,” Schultz continues. “The title was meant to be forceful. With travel, people wait until they retire or until the kids leave. And by then, it’s too late. You wake up and you are 90. There is only one thing we are assured of in life, it’s that you will die. This encourages you to squeeze in as much travel as you can before you kick the proverbial bucket.”
Schultz decided to only include entries in the book for places she had been, which meant years of travel and research, but also explains the dearth of entries for the Middle East or some of the more crime-ridden parts of the world.
“The first book, it was a natural, visceral list,” she says. “I was never told to me balanced and diplomatic and political — just write from my heart. The reason the book is Europe and US-centric, quite frankly, is that I think anyone who has ever visited those places will acknowledge there is more to see in the UK than in Libya. Syria is such a beautiful country. It’s like traveling back to Biblical times. I didn’t include much of it in the new edition because it is not possible to travel to Damascus safely right now. I tried to keep the entries focused on those places you can really see. It broke my heart, but I was kept in by the limits of that 1000 number.”
A lot of other hearts were broken by the book — those of local tourism boards. Making the 1000 Places list can mean a great deal for a struggling country or attraction, and Schultz says that she felt the pressure of boards when making changes for the second edition. “Botswana takes my breath away — but can you compare it to New York City? The whole book was a question of apples and oranges.”
Schultz says she hopes that her work can shift American attitudes towards travel. With the economy still weak and workers concerned about their job security, taking vacation time can feel risky or excessive. But, Schultz says, we only have one life, and it is worth using it to see the world.
“If you really want it to happen, you make it happen. You don’t need a new flatscreen every two years. You don’t need new car every ten years. People lock themselves into routines, and what they end up seeing of the world is so small and limited. I think its about priorities. I can’t tell you how many times I rented out my apartment, sometimes for two weeks or a month at a time. I did not have a sofa for years, because I was never home to sit on it. My priority was to buy an air ticket to get me almost anywhere. If you do your homework, there’s no reason you can’t find a cheap hotel and make inexpensive trips happen.”
Schultz says that her most memorable travel experience was of coming across a woman who was celebrating her 90th birthday by hiking Machu Picchu. “She told me to remember that my knees have expiration dates,” Schultz jokes. “We all have expiration dates. Get up, go somewhere.”