Review of Urban Books: “The Tour Guide: Walking and Talking New York”

A R.U.B. (Review of Urban Books) of:

Jonathan R. Wynn, The Tour Guide: Walking and Talking New York, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

From a short critique written for a public history class at the University of Victoria.

I read Jonathan Wynn’s The Tour Guide for three reasons: for inspiration about how to academically and theoretically place my own walking tours within the wider field of walking tours; to find practical advice about how to run my own walking tours; and to mine a bibliography assembled by another academic that would point me in other theoretical and practical directions. All three of my aims were sated, although Wynn’s approach does suffer from some oversights and omissions.

Wynn provides what I believe to be an excellent theoretical way in which to understand walking tours in general: as a set of “seven constitutive struggles” or tensions, that “provide a heuristic framework” for understanding walking tours. These tensions are between profession and hobby, legitimacy and autonomy, independent freelancers and company employees, academic inclination and autodidacticism, education and entertainment, public and private interests, and between visitors and locals (30-33). Each of Wynn’s chapters explores how these tensions operate through theoretical discussion and the presentation of ethnographic case studies of particular guides and tours who, he says, are representative of the tension with which he has paired them. The theoretical discussions are the strongest half of this pairing; Wynn makes it clear that rather than falling into simple categories, individual guides and the tours they lead fall on to a continuum between each of the two tensions he investigates in each chapter. The categories are flexible, and therefore more useful intellectual conceits, than if he had insisted on a more concrete categorization.

The ethnographic case studies, however, are less intellectually satisfying. Wynn usually provides two or three long descriptions of particular tours with a single guide in each chapter, which are presented as asides to the main argument he is making in each chapter. These descriptions are relevant to the argument he is making, but a better way of handling this ethnographic material would be to include shorter descriptions of parts of each walk in support of sub-arguments in each chapter. Part of my objection to this way of presenting ethnographies might be the different expectations that our academic fields impose on the evidence we present; lengthy ethnographies might be more usual in sociological monographs than in the historical ones with which I am more familiar.

Wynn also offered some practical suggestions for my own walking tours. The first three tensions presented above (profession vs. hobby, legitimacy vs. autonomy, independent freelancers vs. company employees) were explored at length in chapter two, and Wynn implied that I could eke out a constantly shifting series of roles in this industry, depending on how my needs (for money and flexibility) and resources (time, knowledge, connections) change over time. On a more practical level, Wynn offered advice on how to select themes and neighbourhoods, conduct research and create a tour in one chapter (84-91); later, he offered “Eight Storytelling Tricks” (92-106). He also listed several types of potentially problematic tourists. In analyzing these types, he implied several ways in which a guide might deal with them (115-121). The problem I see with these various tips and “tricks” is that in such a short book that is also doing a number of other things (academic analysis, history, ethnographic description), the practical advice that Wynn does offer tends to be superficial. Although I see his advice as useful, it will take me a long time and much more experience to unpack it and put it to good use.

Wynn’s bibliography, although not extensive, covers the field well and has the potential to guide me in several useful directions. There is a great deal of theoretical material listed in it, although with a sociological bent, as well as some histories of New York and the United States. The theoretical pieces, especially, provide interesting directions for me to explore. However, Wynn’s local focus on New York limits the utility of this section for me. Building local knowledge to create my own walking tours in Victoria will therefore require me to continue reading widely on a variety of local urban topics not listed by Wynn.

Overall, I believe that this book will be very useful to me in designing future walking tours and thinking through my own work in this field. I thank Seth Kamil of Big Onion Walking Tours for suggesting it.

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

This entry was posted in Book Review, Economy, Education, Employment, Events, Pedestrians, R.U.B. (Review of Urban Books), Reading List, Research, University Courses, University of Victoria, UVic, Victoria, Walking Tours. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Review of Urban Books: “The Tour Guide: Walking and Talking New York”

  1. Pingback: Walking Tours and the Religious Landscape of Victoria | Vincent's Victoria

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