Joseph Anderson

Books about maps

As I wrote about last time, I am up to my eyeballs in the study of maps and mapping.

I once visited Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts. In his study there is a round table, which has a top that revolves like a lazy Susan. Emerson would cover the table with open books, and rotate the top back and forth as he scanned and stitched together ideas from multiple sources.

That approach to absorbing materials feels very familiar. In my work on deepening my appreciation and understanding of mapping I have at least a dozen books I am working with, from the history of mapping, to the decorative detail of historical maps, to various artistic and aesthetic takes on the meaning and use of maps.

Here are a few things I’ve been reading, with some thoughts they are stirring up in me:

  • In the wonderful book Everything Sings by Denis Wood (just so much to love about it, with his many maps of his North Carolina neighborhood from every conceivable angle: Halloween pumpkins, paper routes, squirrel highways, and so much more), the author notes that his training in professional cartography left out the poetics of space, the beauty of places; most maps represent what can be exploited in one way or another. Since in Soul Cartography we are working with the inherently unmappable territory of the soul, we have no choice but to rely on poetics (imagination, intuition, the non-rational mind) in our approach. We can only take a stab at it, following a rough approximation of the geographer’s art, to make our marks.
  • Looking at the history of cartography is a useful way to identify the range of attitudes one can adopt to this exercise. In the fluid space we are mapping, it’s good to have a lot of options. Jerry Brotton’s book A History of the World in 12 Maps is sparking a ton of ideas that I will be sharing in my next class, and I hope to explore some of that here. Greek and Islamic and medieval and Renaissance maps teach us how to conceptualize space in very different ways, and they all have relevance to the process of personal discovery.
  • One option that is perhaps least useful is the notion of mapping that emerged in the late 18th century and has been with us ever since: the notion that a map captures a literal representation of the space in question. It’s not really true, and that can be proved any number of ways. But that is the overarching misunderstanding of our era, eroded in today’s post-modern era to some extent, but (especially in the world of maps) very resistant to genuine change. Both Everything Sings and Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies show how contemporary artists are breaking down the hegemony of conventional mapping and open up new and more creative possibilities. Musing on the enormous diversity of the possibilities for mapping, I’m feeling inspired to encourage my students to think differently about how they might map their lives, in ways that resonate with their own imaginations.
  • Soul Cartography has a lot to do with time as well as space; I’m finding Daniel Rosenberg’s Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline looks at the ways time has been rendered in 2-dimensional space, from the days of early Christianity (when the notion of a holistic and purposeful view of history truly emerged) until today. Although these presentations are looking at the broad sweep of historical time, there are lessons there for how we might conceive of and represent the shapes of individual lives. 

It’s very rich material, percolating through my consciousness and mingling with many other streams of rational thought, intuition, and creative discovery. I’m loving the process – and yet I want to stay focused on my goal: to continue to find tools and resources that will spark in my students the “a-ha” moments that help clarify and strengthen their sense of meaning, purpose, and calling. On the eve of Thankgiving, I’m feeling honored and grateful to be engaged in this wonderful work.