'I'm very ignorant.'"
- Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge
I just finished reading an entirely decent book on architecture. Frankly, I had begun to feel a little ridiculous travelling all the way around the world to see these great buildings, and then standing there pointing and muttering, "Look I think it's Revival something or other . . ." I feel vindicated in this shame, for as the intro to this book notes "with architecture even more than with other arts, the secret of enjoyment is understanding." Anyway, I spent a lot of afternoons with this tome, and now I've at least got my Doric/Ionic/Corinthian orders straight, my cathedral terminology (nave, apse, transept, baptistry, ambulatory, etc.) sorted, and at least a fleeting sense of the significance, progression, and major defining characteristics of the major styles (Greek Classical, Roman Classical, Byzantine, Carolingian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque/Rococo, Modern, etc.). I know this elevates my status to dilettante (or at very best beginning lay student), but I much prefer it to my previous perfect ignorance.
I sure wish I had made this effort prior to my trips to Europe. It would have been great to know what I was really looking at in the Cologne Cathedral, the Florence Duomo, Schonbrunn and the Belevedere in Vienna, the Acropolis in Athens, Somerset House and St. Pauls in London, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, etc. etc. Still, as both Matt and Erin have independently suggested, there's also something to be said for doing it in this order reading the text and diagrams on paper, one has a special perspective, and connection, when one has already stood before and within these buildings. Still, suggestion to backpacking kids: take care to bone up a little before you go. Otherwise, you just won't know what you're not missing.