Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘maps’

17 FEBRUARY, 2014

Legendary Lands: Umberto Eco on the Greatest Maps of Imaginary Places and Why They Appeal to Us

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“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself.”

Celebrated Italian novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary critic, and list-lover Umberto Eco has had a long fascination with the symbolic and the metaphorical, extending all the way back to his vintage semiotic children’s books. Half a century later, he revisits the mesmerism of the metaphorical and the symbolic in The Book of Legendary Lands (public library) — an illustrated voyage into history’s greatest imaginary places, with all their fanciful inhabitants and odd customs, on scales as large as the mythic continent Atlantis and as small as the fictional location of Sherlock Holmes’s apartment. A dynamic tour guide for the human imagination, Eco sets out to illuminate the central mystery of why such utopias and dystopias appeal to us so powerfully and enduringly, what they reveal about our relationship with reality, and how they bespeak the quintessential human yearning to make sense of the world and find our place in it — after all, maps have always been one of our greatest sensemaking mechanisms for life, which we’ve applied to everything from the cosmos to time to emotional memory.

Eco writes in the introduction:

Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.

The reality of these illusions is the subject of this book.

Saint-Sever World Map, from the 'Saint-Sever Beatus' (1086), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

T and O map, Bartholomaeus Angelicus, 'Le livre des propriétés des choses' (1392)

Tobias Swinden, 'En Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell' (1714), London, Taylor

Section of the 'Tabula Peutingeriana' (12th-century copy)

Map of Palmanova, from Franz Hogenberg and Georg Braun, 'Civitates orbis terrarum' (1572–1616), Nuremberg

Eco considers the allure of utopias as a tangible manifesto for the possible:

Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself. Out of a hope in a possible future, many people are prepared to make enormous sacrifices, and maybe even die, led on by prophets, visionaries, charismatic preachers, and spellbinders who fire the minds of their followers with the vision of a future heaven on Earth (or elsewhere).

Anonymous, 'Jain Cosmological Map' (c. 1890), gouache on canvas, Library of Congress

'Ulysses' Journey Was Far from Home' | M.O. MacCarthy, 'Carte du monde d'Homère' (1849), New York Public Library

Map of the world according to Hartmann Schedel, in 'Liber chronicarum' (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg (1493)

Woodcut map of the island of Utopia on frontispiece of the 1st edition of Thomas More's 'Utopia' (1516), British Library

There is, however, an inevitable dark side to utopias, whose very presupposition of perfect happiness can itself become a burdensome form of oppression. Eco writes:

We would not always want to live in those societies recommended to us by utopias, because they often resemble dictatorships that impose happiness on their citizens at the cost of their freedom. For example, [Thomas] More’s Utopia preaches freedom of speech and thought as well as religious tolerance, but limits them to believers and excludes atheists, who are barred from public office, while it warns that “if someone takes the license to wander far from his own district and is caught without the pass issued by the supreme magistrate … he is severely punished; if he dares to do so a second time, he is condemned to slavery.” Moreover, utopias have the quality, as literary works, of being somewhat repetitive, because in wishing for a perfect society, we always end up by making a copy of the same model.

Illustration for Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870)

Abraham Ortelius, 'Map of Iceland' (16th century)

Above all, however, Eco sees in the imaginary a counterintuitive assurance of reality — fictional narratives, in a strange way, is the only place where we can become unmoored from our existential discomfort with uncertainty, for in fiction everything is precisely and unambiguously as it was intended:

The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of truth. The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, and skeptics are convinced that they never existed, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr. Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man, while it is equally certain that Anna Karenina died under a train and that she never married Prince Charming.

The Book of Legendary Lands is magnificent in its entirety. Complement it with Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most beautiful encyclopedia of imaginary things, and Where You Are, a wonderful case study in cartography as wayfinding for the soul.

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17 DECEMBER, 2013

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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14 NOVEMBER, 2013

An Illustrated Field Guide to Biking in 8 Major European Cities

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Across the Old World on two wheels.

The invention of the bicycle is easily one of the greatest human achievements, one credited with everything from the spread of urbanism to the emancipation of women. City Cycling: Europe (public library) is a beautiful new boxed set by Thames & Hudson — who previously gave us the visually stunning Cyclepedia — in partnership with high-end cycling brand Rapha Racing, presenting a series of field guides to happiness on two wheels in eight of Europe’s biggest cities: London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Milan, and Antwerp/ Ghent. From adventurous itineraries to neighborhood curiosities to complete cycling maps to training tips, these backpack-friendly paperback treats feature 400 color illustrations reminiscent of mid-century travel pamphlets and children’s books:

Complement City Cycling: Europe with this charming vintage bike safety manual, handy as ever.

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