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The Birth of Our Modern Obsession with Maps

From Ptolemy to Richard Dawkins, or how customization in Renaissance Venice sparked a cartographic craze.

Throughout history, we’ve used maps as works of art, scientific models of the world, and visual metaphors. But how did cartography come to play such a central role in our daily lives? That’s precisely what Simon Garfield explores in On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (UK; public library) — a fine addition to these favorite books on maps, peering into the roots of modern mapmaking through trivia-like factlets and curious historical anecdotes.

In fact, the story of our infatuation with maps is as much a story of scientific ingenuity as it is of artistic acumen and clever marketing, with a side of evolutionary biology to boot. And it all began with ur-astronomer Ptolemy, who lived in the second century AD and spent the majority of his life studying at the Great Library of Alexandria. Garfield writes:

Ptolemy’s Geographia … was a two-part interpretation of the world, the first consisting of his methodology, the second of a huge list of names and cities and other locations, each with a coordinate. If the maps in a modern-day atlas were described rather than drawn they would look something like Ptolemy’s work, a laborious and exhausting undertaking, but one based on what we would now regard as a blindingly simple grid system. In the seventh section of Geographia (there were eight in all), Ptolemy provided detailed descriptions for the construction of not just a world map, but twenty-six smaller areas. No original copies have survived, and the closest we can get to it is a tenth-century Arab description of a colored map — though whether that was an original or merely inspired by his text is unknown, and at any rate, it no longer exists.

The modern winds of change: Ptolemy’s classic map of the world, beautifully rendered in 1482 by the German engraver Johannes Schnitzer of Armsheim.

The influence of Ptolemy’s world map, which went on to become one of 100 diagrams that changed the world, was monumental. But, lest we forget that cartography reflects political power structures and propaganda, Ptolemy’s map was full of geopolitical inaccuracies:

As one would expect, Ptolemy had a skewed vision of the world. But while the distortion of Africa and India are extreme, and the Mediterranean is too vast, the placement of cities and countries within the Greco-Roman empire is far more accurate. Ptolemy offered his readers two possible cylindrical projections — the attempt to project the information from a three-dimensional sphere onto a two-dimensional plane — one ‘inferior and easier’ and one ‘superior and more troublesome.’ He gives due credit to a key source, Marinus of Tyre, who had advanced the gazetteer listings system a few decades earlier, assigning his locations not merely a latitude and longitude, but also an estimated distance between them. (Marinus had another claim, too: his map data was the first to include both China and the Antarctic.)

Rather than lamenting his inaccuracies, however, Ptolemy embraced them as an opportunity to exercise his imagination, which introduced an element of opportune serendipity to early explorers’ journeys:

Ptolemy boasted that he had greatly increased the list of cities available to the cartographer (there were about 8,000), and also disparaged the accuracy of Marinus’s measurements. But he had his own flaws. Indeed, the map historian R.V. Tooley suggests that Ptolemy stood apart from his predecessors not just in his brilliance but in his disregard for science. Where earlier cartographers were willing to leave blanks on the map where their knowledge failed, Ptolemy could not resist filling such empty spaces with theoretical conceptions. … [T]his had the uncanny ability to send ambitious sailors, Columbus among them, to places they had no intention of seeing.

But instead of the boon of mapmaking one would expect after Ptolemy’s innovations, the world fell into what Garfield calls “the cartographic dark ages” for about a thousand years. Both the Romans and the Byzantines failed to advance Ptolemy’s work, and it wasn’t until the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s atlas and its translation from Greek into Latin in 1450s Venice that the modern cartographic vision of the world was finally born — and, along with it, our obsession with maps.

Indeed, what sparked that cultural love affair was an unexpected feature we, with our characteristic presentism bias, have come to see as distinctly modern: DIY customization and the personalized map. Half a millennium before Mapalong and Findery, custom atlas books gave rise to the mapping revolution. Garfield writes:

It was in Venice that the atlas became a craze. In the 1560s mapsellers had the idea of allowing customers to build their own atlas from the stock on display. If you didn’t like the Spanish maps on offer, you simply didn’t put them in your book. But if you were intrigued with the emerging face of South America you could choose two or three (perhaps conflicting) impressions. Most buyers would select one single-sheet copy of the latest work of the leading cartographers — Giacomo Gastaldi was strong on Africa and Arabia, whilst you might choose Paolo Forlani for South America and George Lily for the British Isles. These would then be folded and bound between covers of your choice, a unique and discerning collection, the cartographic iPod of its day.

But, Garfield argues, the cultural role of maps extends far beyond Renaissance merchandising tricks and well into our very evolutionary development. He cites the work of Richard Dawkins, who has argued in Unweaving the Rainbow that primitive mapping allowed hunter-gatherers to communicate their tracking plans before the development of language:

A tracker would be ‘fully accustomed to the idea of following a trail, and imagining it laid out on the ground as a life-size map and the temporal graph of the movements of an animal. What could be more natural than for the leader to seize a stick and draw in the dust a scale model of such a temporal picture: a map of movement over a surface?’

This, of course, is also the beginning of cave paintings — humans and animals depicted in their daily round of survival, with representational figures standing for something else, and introducing the concept of scale and directional arrows and spatial difference.

But as for the brain, we may have found the reason for expansion and sophistication. Richard Dawkins concludes with a question: ‘Could it have been the drawing of maps that boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross?’

The rest of On the Map goes on to explore such fascinating facets of cartographic history as the gender bias in how maps are made, FDR and Churchill’s quest to design the perfect globe, how Lord Byron popularized the term “guidebook,” and what breakthroughs in neuroimaging tell us about the brain’s unique capacity for spatial orientation.

BP

Terry Gross’s Moving Maurice Sendak Interview, Illustrated by Christoph Niemann

“Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

Beloved children’s book author and artist Maurice Sendak — though he insisted he never wrote specifically for children — was among the most heartbreaking losses of 2012. His September 2011 NPR Fresh Air interview by Terry Gross is one of the most soul-stirring conversations you’ll ever hear on the airwaves. So much so that, ever since he first tuned in, the inimitable Christoph Niemann was so moved that he decided to illustrate the last five minutes of the interview. The result will stop your breath:

It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music. You know, I don’t think I’m rationalizing anything. I really don’t. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it.

[…]

I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.

Sendak’s final book, Bumble-Ardy (public library), was published the week of Terry Gross’s interview. For more of Sendak’s genius, see his darkest yet most hopeful children’s book, his uncommon take on Nutcracker, and his little-known vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

BP

How To Be a Woman

“Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change.”

We seem to have come a long way since the days of anti-Suffragette postcards and lists of don’ts for female cyclists. And yet, in How To Be a Woman (UK; public library), British media personality Caitlin Moran argues that “we still also need a bit of analysis-y, argument-y, ‘this needs to change-y’ stuff. You know. Feminism.” Her sort-of-memoir — witty, honest, feisty without trying too hard, opinionated without being preachy — begins at the beginning:

1) Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And, more pertinently:

2) I’m not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous, and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic who has appalling spelling. If something’s thrilling and fun, I want to join in — not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues! And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.

She turns to social science to draw a compelling analogy between the current occupation of feminism and broken windows theory:

[A]ll those littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women’s peace of mind. It is the ‘Broken Windows’ philosophy, transferred to female inequality. In the Broken Windows theory, if a single broken window on an empty building is ignored and not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may break into the building and light fires, or become squatters.

Similarly, if we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then, eventually, people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them. Women will get squatters. Clearly, this is not a welcome state of affairs.

But rather than sorting out the complexities of the issue in the halls of the academy, Moran argues pop’s inherent qualities make it a perfect arena:

Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change. Because of its immediacy, reach, and power — no two-year turnover, like movies; no three-year writing process, like the novel; no ten-year campaigning process, like politics — any thought or feeling that begins to foment in the collective unconscious can be number one in the charts two months later. And as soon as a pop idea gets out there, it immediately triggers action and reaction in other artists, whose responses are equally rapid — leading to an almost quantum overnight shift in the landscape.

And though touting Lady Gaga as a feminist icon might appear anything from misguided to hackneyed at first glance, Moran makes a well-argued and layered case, looking at how Gaga’s influence might reverberate through the generations:

While it’s always too early to call a career until it’s ten years in, the sheer scope, scale, impact, and intent of Gaga’s first two years as a pop star thrill me more than any female artist to emerge since Madonna. Indeed, much as I acknowledge, as a Western woman, my eternal indebtedness to Madonna — I would never have had the courage to paraglide with my muff hanging out or shag Vanilla Ice if it weren’t for the pioneering work Madonna did in Sex — it should also be noted that Gaga ascended to the world stage wearing an outfit made of raw meat and protesting against the U.S. Army’s homophobia, when she was just 24. At 24, Madonna was still working at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Brooklyn.

[…]

The end point of her songs is not to excite desire in potential lovers, but the thrill of examining her own feelings, then expressing them to her listeners, instead. … For women, finding a sympathetic, nonjudgmental arena is just as important as getting the right to vote. We needed not just the right legislation, but the right atmosphere, too, before we could finally start to found our canons — then, eventually, cities and empires. Ultimately, I think it’s going to be very difficult to oppress a generation of teenage girls who’ve grown up with a liberal, literate, bisexual pop star…

In the rest of How To Be a Woman, Moran goes on to explore everything from the politics of parenting to the bargaining chips of love, using the disarming honesty of her own experience as a broader lens on some of contemporary culture’s most deep-seated, widely resonating biases and frictions.

BP

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