Brain Pickings

Where You Are: Cartography as Wayfinding for the Soul

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Mapping the human experience based on disposition rather than position.

Humanity has had a long and obsessive relationship with maps as sensemaking tools serving such diverse purposes as propaganda, imaginative interpretation, emotional memory, and timekeeping. Far from the precise navigational tools they once were, maps have now blossomed into masterworks of artful subjectivity, from Denis Wood’s narrative atlas to Paula Scher’s stunning typographic cartography — but nowhere more so than in Where You Are: A Collection of Maps That Will Leave You Feeling Completely Lost (public library) by Visual Editions. Consisting of sixteen maps by sixteen different artists and writers in a beautifully designed boxed set of booklets and fold-out maps, including contributions from Alain de Botton, Geoff Dyer, and Olafur Eliasson, this remarkable and unusual compendium places people rather than geography at the heart of the compass to construct a provocative new conception of cartography as wayfinding for the soul, not the body.

Indeed, in the age of GPS and sterile, data-driven cartographic precision, how delightful to consider mapping the human experience based on disposition rather than position, on the subjective rather than the capital-O Objective, on the symbolic, metaphysical, and abstract rather than the literal, physical, and concrete. From Geoff Dyer’s bullet-pointed locational autobiography to Sheila Heti and Ted Mineo’s love letter to chance in a six-hexagram miniature of the I Ching, these imaginative and irreverent personal cartographies expand the conception of a map as a flat reflection of geography and reclaim it, instead, as a living, breathing, dimensional expression of the human spirit.

Novelist Joe Dunthorne offers an illustrated map of “the mess of influences, anxieties, past failures, hopes, enemies, distractions and stimulants [of] each writing day”:

In an essay contemplating the delights of old maps, at once so misguided and so brave, philosopher Alain de Botton (yes, him — and him — also him) observes:

The pleasure of contemplating the world on a map might be likened to that of reading certain novels. In both cases, we are placed in a privileged position vis a vis a reality which we usually only glimpse from a limited perspective. With a world map, we rise above the constraints of our segment of land so as to hold the globe in our gaze, much as with novels, we may be granted intimate access to minds beyond our own.

But of course, like a novel, a map can only ever be a model and reduction of reality. The journeys we make through the landscape look precariously unlike the lines we trace on a map — and it is here that the lost motorist moans. However, it seems we cannot do without abbreviations of complexity in order to make sense of our world, in order to get to our destination.

In a poetic piece playing on Alice in Wonderland and titled A Map of Six Impossible Things, Iranian-born, Paris-raised, New-York-based writer Lila Azam Zanganeh, author of The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, imagines:

The impossible city is a city made of all cities. It is neither a city of the future nor a city of the past. It is a longing for the city. A city of stone and a city of glass. It is a city of spires and transparent abysses. A city of rivers streaming into an expanse of blue. It is a city of dubious beauty. Yet also a city of staggering beauty. A city of belfries harried by the screams of seagulls. A city of evergreen hills and lucid water. It is a city of children running down heaps of garbage. A city of drowsy bays and flying men and opal lakes. It is a city of sand and dunes, a city where the first and last human are covered in dust. It is a city of convents, fig-scented gardens and singing mounts. A city of redbrick castles with wide-open arms. It is a city of stone churches smelling of green water at sunup. A city of saints. It is a city of connecting islands. A city with only one weeping willow hunched over a promontory. It is a city of minarets and violet towers. A city of dreams long gone and lingering still. It is a city stippled with gold and yearning for the sun. It is all the cities you have seen and never seen. And it is the last city standing on the edge of the world, a second before the sun slips into the water.

Canadian artist, designer, and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton explores cartography through her Tablescapes project — paintings of the topography of her desk or tabletop:

Pitcher from antique store in Lewes, pear, two pencils, watercolor palette, box of watercolor brushes, vintage bikini, cup of coffee, plum, paper napkin, three jars of ink, two sketchbooks, plastic cup of water, plastic bottle of water, ashtray from Forte dei Marmi, an unwrapped chocolate, small china plate.

Two mugs of tea (one warm, one cold), bag of shelled pistachios, shoebox of photocopies, letter envelopes, bottle of cologne, seven postcards, week-old newspaper.

Sketchbook, ten jars of ink, ten sample pots of house paint, small vase of roses, book on trees, two books on swimming, three paintbrushes, paper towel, set of watercolors, scented candle, tube of moisturizer, packet of sleeping pills, bag of granola.

Fried plantain bananas, paper towel, two napkins, two placemats, Toronto Star mug.

It is rare that a book’s companion site would be anything other than an afterthought or a gimmick, but this one is something else entirely — an experience wholly different from, yet entirely complementary to, the analog artifact. Yet the charisma of Where You Are remains its unapologetic humanity, the palpable physicality with which it counters the digital despotism of the devices we seem to have so irreversibly embraced as we navigate the world — an implicit paraphrasing of Carl Sagan, reminding us how a map is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

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