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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Maps and legends

There was a nice overview of recent books on maps in Friday's NY Times. My friend Alicia also recommended Peter Turchi's Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. This summer, I was fooling around in the Dewey Decimal section of Butler Library's tenth floor stacks--my favorite part of the library, in a way, because I always find something weird when I'm looking for an old copy of a novel or an old biography--and found W.P. James's The Lure of the Map (circa 1920). The book--since taken out of circulation because it was crumbling to pieces when I picked it up--is bright green with an eye-catching font on the spine. I can't find much more information about the author, but he's written this collection of essays about how maps structure consciousness and our relationship with landscape; the disappearance of the triple-decker novel; how authors imagine unknown lands. I love this passage from the title essay:
Ruskin, confessing what a vast amount of knowledge had been thrown into a narrow space by the charts of the world drawn up by modern science, regretted that they were not pictorial enough to enable the spectator to imagine the kind of contrast in physical character which exists between Northern and Southern countries. We know, he said, the differences in detail, but we want that broad glance and grasp which should enable us to feel them in their fullness. He imagined what it would be to fly with the swallow or the stork, to view the Mediterranean lying beneath like an irregular lake, with all its ancient promontories sleeping in the sun; to pass northwards from that great peacefulness of light, Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea blue, and to watch the orient colors change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green, where the pastures of Switzerland and poplar valleys of France and dark forest of the Danube and Carpathians stretch from the mouths of the Loire to those of the Volga, seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud. And so on farther north still, to see the earth heave into mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moor, bordering with a broad waste of gloomy purple that belt of field and wood, and splintering into irregular and grisly islands amidst the Northern seas. And at last the wall of ice durable like iron, its white teeth set deathlike against us out of the polar twilight.

But what was it that made possible for Ruskin this flight in imagination over successive latitudes of the earth's surface? What but the map to which his tribute is inadequate? Without the map his bird flight and bird's-eye view would have been clean impossible. He had grown up, as we have all grown up, in a world of maps and of the geographical knowledge made visually intelligible by map. We are familiar with the contours of the countries of the world laid out upon the blue ocean on the terrestrial globe. Ruskin, with his experience of travel and his gift of observation, learnt to read in a fuller measure than most of us the full text of nature in the shorthand of the map, and transcribe it with all the splendour of his rhetoric. But without the map the vision would have been unimaginable.

And this is one of my favorite passages ever written about maps, from Michael Herr's Dispatches:
There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I'd lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn't real anymore. For one thing, it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Frenchman, since the map had been made in Paris. The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted. Vietnam was divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cohin China, and to the west past Laos and Cambodge sat Siam, a kingdom. That's old, I'd tell visitors, that's a really old map.

If dead ground could come back and haunt you the way dead people do, they'd have been able to mark my map CURRENT and burn the ones they'd been using since '64, but count on it, nothing like that was going to happen. It was late '67 now, even the most detailed maps didn't reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind. We knew that the uses of most information were flexible, different pieces of ground told different stories to different people. We also knew that for years now there had been no country here but the war.