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Traveling by Numbers: How Our Obsession With Lists Is Ruining Travel Writing

by Aaron Hamburger Oct 2, 2013

As a kid in school, I dreaded math, as did most kids my age. Yet judging from the headlines emblazoned on magazine covers, newspapers, and homepages of popular websites, you’d think we were a nation of number lovers.

  • “Top Ten Travel Mistakes and How Not To Make Them” (Budget Travel, via Huffington Post)
  • “36 Hours in Buenos Aires” (New York Times Travel Section)
  • “10 Authentic Ways to Travel Like a Local” (USA Today Travel Section)
  • “Six Things to Make a Flight More Comfortable” (Conde Nast Traveler)

And how about this headline, which manages to combine two numbers in one:

  • “100 Ways to Travel Better: 3 Tips from a “Lazy Traveler” (CNN and Travel + Leisure)

Even our beloved Matador Network is not immune:

It used to be that “number-based” stories had to occur in multiples of 5. Top 5 ways to lose weight, top 10 movies of the year, best 100 novels of the century, etc. It was as if the only knowledge of note occurred in fives.

Lately, however, it seems that any number will do. 16 (“16 Helpful Tips for Traveling the World” — Buzzfeed), 8 (“8 Reasons to Visit Dubrovnik” — Afar), or 11 (“11 Best Travel Pictures” — National Geographic Traveler).

And of course, I say all this as the author of the Matador post, Writing lesson: 14 questions for setting.

Strange how a number makes something seem important, relevant, immediate. I mean, would the Ten Commandments have the same resonance if they were called instead, “Some stuff to do and some stuff not to do”?

I have to admit, when I saw the Huff Post headline on the top ten travel mistakes to avoid, I felt an irresistible itch to click. Looking at the title, I felt a kind of anxiety. Oh, no! What am I not avoiding?

For one thing, the simplicity of lists is a lie.

When I did click, I found that there were actually only five suggestions listed, things like ‘leave enough connection time between flights’ or ‘get your passport early.’ I was forced to click yet again to receive the remaining five pearls of wisdom. And even then, I was taken from the Huffington Post to the same article on Budget Travel’s website with the same five pieces of advice, meaning to get the other five, I had to click again.

I felt exhausted, and I hadn’t been anywhere.

Our obsession with numbers and lists, as both editors and readers, is amusing on first glance, yet it also has a darker, and in my view, dangerous side. For one thing, the simplicity of lists is a lie.

When we look at the world quantitatively rather than qualitatively, we erase nuance, distinction. In our contemporary mania to be and live the best and brightest lives, to eat only at the best restaurants, to see only the most thrilling sights, to fly, to sleep, to ride in unending comfort, we miss the opportunity to have that unclassifiable, mysterious experience we never knew we needed until it happens.

When has anyone ever taken a journey worth remembering by sticking to a paint-by-numbers itinerary? Like life, travel is messy, good and bad, weird, fun, ugly, sometimes brutal, even utterly authentic in its artificiality. For example, if I have to travel “like” a local, I am by definition not a local, no matter how many top ten tips I read and observe. And isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t part of the point of travel not to fit in?

Yet we continue to be drawn in by the false promises of list-o-mania, which promote the illusion of travel as a mad dash to visit only the best beaches, the most picturesque resorts, the quaintest cafes. Such journeys occur in an enchanted garden, where the weeds of life are yanked out by the roots so that they don’t get in our way.

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