SOME travel books are a substitute for traveling, best read at home, and others are only meaningful on the spot. The Blue Guide to Rome and Environs, by Stuart Rossiter, lists, among other things, almost every painting and sculpture in Rome. It's impossible to read it outside Rome. But crack it open in the Galleria Borghese, when you are surrounded with wonderful paintings identified only by mysterious numbers and sculptures with plaques in Italian, and you'll be fascinated. You grip this dry little chunk of fine gray print with true joy when you find out that the face of David, contorted with magnificent ambition as he winds up to hurl the rock at Goliath, is a self-portrait of the 25-year-old Bernini.
Paul Theroux's travel books, on the other hand, keep you home. ''The Great Railway Bazaar'' and ''The Old Pata-gonian Express'' make me glad it was he and not I who chugged and lurched on trains around Europe, India, China, and Siberia , and down through South America. He writes, paradoxically, with cheer and vivacity about the rigors of travel and the dark side of the places he visits. Kingdom by the Sea is a true antitravel book. He asked me, in an interview, if I wanted to go to England now that I had read the book. He was kidding. Having read ''Kingdom by the Sea,'' I have an odd affection for the coast of Great Britain, as if I had been there myself. But I am glad to have come to feel that way by reading rather than from actually smelling the old fish-and-chip frying oil and staying in the sagging guesthouses Theroux took in on his voyage.
Henry James's A Little Tour in France is his account of an 1882 trip around France. It's the rare book that seems as if it would hold up as well on the road as it did in the armchair where I read it. In between spells in the armchair, I was traveling frequently, and, although I wasn't in France, I found his remarks on traveling as true now as they were 102 years ago.
He writes so specifically that you could use this as a guidebook, but you don't have to be there to see what he's talking about. He writes vividly of sinuous, rivers, rich brown glooms, and a town whose small houses look like crumbs dropped from a well-laden table. He also personalizes the landscape. He mentions, for example, the ''old church of Saint Julian (in Tours) lurking in a crooked corner at the right of the Rue Royale, near the point at which this indifferent thoroughfare emerges, with its little cry of admiration, on the bank of the Loire.''
Reading ''A Little Tour in France'' is like reading a novel, but the landscape and sights are the characters, and the people make an interesting backdrop. Historical figures get a little more attention, because, after all, they built the chateaux James peruses so avidly.
On James's tour, everything has its mood. The towers of the ruined Cathedral at Tours ''in their gray elevation and loneliness . . . are striking and suggestive today; holding their hoary heads far above the modern life of the town, and looking sad and conscious, as if they had outlived all uses.''
Henry James gets across what it feels like to be in a place without putting himself in the picture. The buildings get all the good lines. Of the lurking church by the Loire, he says, ''You feel that the building has something to say, and that you must stop to listen to it.''
He stops often to listen, and he hears historical scandals, romances in the long corridor over the river, and ridiculous design follies. He makes this compelling because he cares intensely, and writes heatedly, without saying ''I'' very often.
Still, you know before long that he is fussy about restorations, hates trains , and thinks the French Revolution was a bad idea. Reading this book is like being ushered around by a quiet guide who shows you the view, suggests a place for dinner, and then mutters something intelligent, discerning, or crabby. You look at the view but you wait for the muttering, because it makes everything fall into place. Even if you don't agree, his opinions help you find your way more easily than guides that just say what's there.
The Chateau of Chambord, he says, has ''a quality of stupidity.'' And he is capable of falling in love at first sight with Cheverny, a house built in 1634 that Henry IV once lived in. ''A light, sweet mansion stood looking over a wide green lawn, over banks of flowers and groups of trees,'' he writes. He could be talking about a woman. But what moves him to rapture is the old graciousness of the house, which he can still feel. In Henry IV's bedroom, ''a legendary-looking bed, draped in folds long unaltered, defined itself in the haunted dusk.''
Such descriptions, and the spirit that makes him pay such rapt attention to the past are truly moving. You want to go there yourself and see if Cheverny is still that sweet.
James gives you information and an understanding of French history and architecture, but more than that he shows you how to approach them. He is an exemplary travel writer because he is a wonderful tourist, open-minded but opinionated, enthusiastic as well as discerning. He goes to the tiring lengths travelers must go to. He visits Cheverny at dusk, a time when most tourists are back in the hotel soaking their feet, and he walks up the avenue to the house, ''the coachmen in these parts being, for reasons best known to themselves, mortally averse to driving up to a house.'' On the ride back to his hotel in the dark, he's not looking up restaurants in the Michelin.
''There was a damp autumnal smell and the occasional sound of a stirring thing, and as I moved through the evening air, I thought of Francis I and Henry IV.''
This is the real pleasure of travel, being transported and imagining life in another time and place. Henry James enjoys it so well and so thoroughly that, reading him, even if you are already on a trip through France, you go far.