Brain Pickings

Everything Sings: Making the Case for a New Cartography

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What Ira Glass has to do with atlas antagonism, or what plotting carved pumpkins reveals about place.

The most intimate infographics of all may be maps, those images that tell of our complicated relationships to place, bounded by time. Or at least, this is just one of the interesting arguments made by the book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, a beautiful exploration of a small North Carolina neighborhood that also provides a platform for much larger ideas, published by Siglio Press in 2010.

We’ve long believed in the transformative power of maps, which was why we immediately fell in love with Everything Sings and its author, Denis Wood. A kind of counter-culture cartographer, Wood has for decades sought ways to call the seeming objectivity of maps into question. In his fascinating introduction to the book, Wood wonders why map-making was an artistic discipline that somehow escaped modernism’s critical overhaul, its conventions barely changing in the centuries since it was first practiced.

Admitting that atlases were narrative — that they were texts — would force the admission that the individual maps were texts too, that maps constituted a semiological system indistinguishable from other semiological systems, like those of paintings or novels or poems.” ~ Denis Wood

His argument for a kind of “poetics of cartography” provides context to the maps that follow, a narrative about how life was in his Boylan Heights neighborhood in the early 1980s.

Everything Sings grew out of an episode of NPR’s This American Life in which host Ira Glass inadvertently came across Wood’s shelved project from a university course he’d previously taught to landscape architecture students. Glass contributes a fantastic foreword that pretty much sums up what makes the collection so special.

These maps are completely unnecessary. The world didn’t ask for them. They aid no navigation or civic-minded purpose. They’re just for pleasure. They laugh at the stupid Google map I consult five times a day on my phone. They laugh at what a square that map is. At its small-mindedness. They know it’s a sad, workaholic salaryman.” ~ Ira Glass

Here are just a few of our favorite images from the atlas, with excerpts from Wood’s accompanying texts:

Wind Chimes

They were all over -- bamboo, glass, shell, metal tubes. Depending on where you stood, the force of the wind, and the time of day, you could hear several chiming, turning the neighborhood into a carillon.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Jack-O'-Lanterns

I rode through the neighborhood on my bicycle--it was 1982--and took pictures of all the jack-o'-lanterns.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Police Calls

All over Boylan Heights, numerous calls to report disturbances reveal a general reluctance to knock on a neighbors' doors and ask them to 'turn it down.' Boylan Heights is small and hardly crime ridden, but this is only a six month's harvest of calls to 911.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Squirrel Highways

Nervous squirrels, afraid of an attack on the ground, use the phone and television cables as highways wherever the tree canopy's broken. Birds rest on the power lines.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Pools of Light

When, in the later 19th century, Americans began systematically to light their streets, it was seen as a wholesome influence to cleanliness, as a deterrent to throwing garbage into the streets under the cover of darkness, and as an inducement to leaving windows open at night for healthier sleep.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Everything Sings may be an antagonist to the traditional practice of cartography, and yet it accomplishes exactly the end that all maps must, if they’re to be of any lasting use: forcing us to see our world, and its many wonders, anew each day.

Images and captions copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Ray: A Life Underwater

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What antique cannon balls have to do with walking on the moon and life on the bottom of the world.

For 75-year-old Ray Ives, life is an endless treasure hunt. For the past half-century, he has been scouring the ocean floor for anything that glitters, bringing back to the surface everything from swords to bottles to real gold — in a diving suit from the early 1900s. Ray: A Life Underwater is a haunting and beatiful short film by Amanda Bluglass and Danny Cooke, a poetic portrait of the unusual man through his collection of unusual marine artifacts that captures his ceaseless curiosity and serene lens on the world.

For someone who hasn’t dived, I couldn’t explain, really. Well, it’s like when you’re on the moon, I suppose. I’ve never been on the moon, but when you’re down on the bottom, it’s sandy like the moon, you feel pressure on your body, especially the deeper you go, and I guess it just reminds you of space. You hold your breath, it’s absolutely perfect.”

The film is part Past Objects, part Things, part candidate for this omnibus of poetic short films about obsolete occupations, part perfect piece of weekday escapism.

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Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, Possibly His Last

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From Ben Franklin to Qadafi, or what the Egyptian Revolution has to do with Harry Potter.

Christopher Hitchens — legendary self-described “antitheist”, tea master extraordinaire, one of the most opinionated and controversial journalists of our time and despite that, or precisely because of it, also one of the greatest. Last year, his prolific career — which spanned such iconic titles as Vanity Fair, The Nation and Slate — was derailed by a grim cancer diagnosis. (His Vanity Fair essay on losing his “writer’s voice” as cancer attacked his vocal chords is a must-read.)

This month marks the release of Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens Hitchens’ first anthology since 2004 — and, as the author writes in the book’s introduction, possibly his last:

…About a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last.”

The anthology collects some of Hitchens’ best recent work — including “America the Banana Republic,” “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” “Iran’s Waiting Game,” and “God of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment” — imbued with his signature style of lucid nonfiction written with the passion and narrative enchantment of really, really good fiction. Unapologetically candid, wryly humorous and keenly insightful, the essays examines such cultural icons as Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson, Ezra Pound, Abraham Lincoln, George Orwell, and even Harry Potter in the context of contemporary events, weaving history and present together in Hitchens’ web of timelessness and timeliness as he reflects on the most pressing political and social issues of our time.

From the book’s dedication and introduction:

To the memory of Mohemed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu

The three names on the dedication page belonged to a Tunisian street vendor, and Egyptian restaurateur, and a Libyan husband and father. In the spring of 2011, the first of them set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at just one too many humiliations at the hands of petty officialdom. The second also took his own life as Egyptians began to rebel en masse at the stagnation and meaninglessness of Mubarak’s Egypt. The third, it might be said, gave his life as well as took it: loading up his modest car with petrol and explosives and blasting open the gate of the Katiba barracks in Benghazi — symbolic Bastille of the detested and demented Qadafi regime in Libya.”

Crisp and cunning, Arguably is bound to live on as material for the journalism curricula of the future and a priceless piece of the legacy of one of our era’s sharpest minds.

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