Great article from the New Yorker called "The Allure of the Map" looking at the relationship between maps and literature. Posted by Casey N. Cep. January 22, 2014
Map of Treasure Island, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” (Click for a larger version.)
When I felt homesick, I would drag my fingers up and down the map’s paper folds, tracing its shorelines and rivers, wishing they were the real thing. But touching that map only made me more homesick. What I wanted was a map of exact scale, one that wasn’t just a representation but reality itself, the sort imagined by Lewis Carroll in “Sylvie and Bruno Concluded”:
“What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”I suppose anyone who is homesick or lost wants that mile-to-mile correspondence. But Carroll’s map is pure fiction, and not only because of its outlandish scale. No map can be a perfect representation of reality; every map is an interpretation, which may be why writers are so drawn to them.
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
Writers love maps: collecting them, creating them, and describing them. Literary cartography includes not only the literal maps that authors commission or make themselves but also the geographies they describe. The visual display of quantitative information in the digital age has made charts and maps more popular than ever, though every graphic, like every story, has a point of view.
Maps are a standard of adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island” did not begin with Billy Bones or Jim Hawkins, but with a map. Summering in Scotland, in 1881, Stevenson entertained his twelve-year-old stepson by painting when the rain and cold kept them indoors. Stevenson writes, in an essay: “On one of these occasions I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully colored; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbors that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’ ”
Not only did the map give Stevenson a setting; it shaped the novel’s narrative and characters. Stevenson wrote that, when he “pored upon [his] map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting, and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection.” The map printed in the novel’s pages was not some final flourish but a record of its very origins.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Earthsea Trilogy” also began with a map she drew herself. Even when they are not mapmakers, fantasy and science-fiction authors have overseen the creation of cartographic representations of their fictional worlds. J. R. R. Tolkien commissioned Pauline Baynes, who learned mapmaking in the Ministry of Defence during the Second World War, to create maps of his fictional land, Middle Earth: her delicate elven script proclaimed place names, tree-dotted forests and sharp-peaked mountain ranges giving depth to the scenery, and a selection of inserts illustrated some of the architecture, characters, and creatures.
Writing to his publisher in 1949, after receiving some of Baynes’s drawings for “Farmer Giles of Ham,” Tolkien expressed his satisfaction with her art: “They are more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme. I showed them to my friends whose polite comment was that they reduced my text to a commentary on the drawings.” The same could be said for her map of Middle Earth, which influenced the way many readers visualized the imaginary world. Tolkien was so satisfied with her work that he introduced her to his friend C. S. Lewis, for whom she mapped Narnia. More recently, Lev Grossman saw to the production of elaborate maps, by Roland Chambers, for his novels “The Magicians” and “The Magician King.” And George R. R. Martin even printed an entire volume of maps to accompany his series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which began with the book “A Game of Thrones.”
Genre fiction often involves cartographic illustration, but so, too, do highly regionalist works. Sherwood Anderson commissioned a map of the titular town “Winesburg, Ohio,” as did the novelist Jan Karon for her novels set in the fictional town of Mitford, North Carolina. Henry David Thoreau surveyed Walden Pond for a map that he included in “Walden,” and William Faulkner drew his own map of Yoknapatawpha County for the publication of “Absalom, Absalom!” Faulkner revised the map ten years later for “The Portable Faulkner,” going so far as to call himself “sole owner and proprietor,” and adding a note: “Surveyed & mapped for this volume by William Faulkner.”
Every map tells a story, and writers yearning for new ways to tell stories are drawn to them. Walter Benjamin wrote of how he had “long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life—bios—graphically on a map.” Written when he was forty, “A Berlin Chronicle” resists a standard, linear biography and, instead, plots a map. Rather than a chronology, Benjamin creates a geography of Berlin; the relationships and events of the author’s life become map dots rather than plot points. A geographical map of Berlin converges with Benjamin’s personal map of the city, though Benjamin is still dependent on sentences and paragraphs.
Peter Turchi argues in his book “Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer” that all writers are mapmakers and that all writing is like a map. For Turchi, the map is more than metaphor: it is an organizing principle of narrative. Language is like a land, paragraphs are districts, sentences are streets, and words are only lines and curves constructed the way maps are made of lines and shapes. Letters are like wild canyons and chaotic seas that the writer maps into words and then into sentences and then into scenes.
Consider Teju Cole’s recent use of Twitter for his short story “Hafiz.” After distributing phrases and sentences to participants who then tweeted them from their own accounts, Cole mapped the story through a series of retweets. On their own, the pieces of the story were scattered and easily buried in cacophonous feeds of unrelated links, quotations, and thoughts; with Cole to map the story, tweeting the pieces in their proper order, a narrative became clear. Just as a cartographer makes sense of the world, Cole made sense of the territory of Twitter, shaping a story from chaos.
A tweet-for-tweet map of Twitter would be not only exhaustive but impossible, like the mile-for-mile map of Lewis Carroll’s novel, which Jorge Luis Borges later made into its own story:
In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.
Borges called the piece “Of Exactitude in Science,” and packaged it as a bit of fictional lore with the notation “Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.” It’s an elaborate fabrication of a historical text, one that conveys the essential division between reality and representation. A map that is too exact becomes the thing it maps, endangering both.
A map equal to what it maps would be more than “cumbersome”; it would be disastrous—a fact proven by Neil Gaiman’s return to the maps of Borges and Carroll in his short story “The Mapmaker,” in which Borges’s empire becomes China, and the avaricious desire for a representation equal to reality is embodied by an emperor. “The more accurate the map,” Gaiman writes, “the more it resembles the territory.”
And so begins the emperor’s quest for perfect similitude. First, he creates a miniature version of the empire on an island, with attendants modifying it every morning to fix natural changes that have occurred in the model and form alterations that have occurred in the empire itself. Not satisfied, the emperor imagines a larger, more accurate “map-world” at one-hundredth the scale of the empire and, then, something even grander: “A map…of the imperial dominions, in which each house shall be represented by a life-sized house, every mountain shall be depicted by a mountain, every tree by a tree of the same size and type, every river by a river, and every man by a man.”
Such a map, Gaiman writes, is “perfectly accurate and perfectly useless,” and the emperor dies before it is completed. The literary equivalent of the emperor’s map would be a biography of everyone in the world, or a novel of every second of every minute of every day: literature, like a map, gains its power from selection, from miniaturization. And the writer, like the cartographer, must make careful decisions about every aspect of the map: from letters to words, sentences, and paragraphs, from chapters to sections and volumes. Literary cartography fascinates and guides the way that actual cartography does; that’s why we keep and carry stories in the same places we carry and keep maps: on our walls, in our pockets, and on our phones.
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.