Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Maps of the Imagination

"The Silver Dog With the Golden Tail - Will the Tail Wag the Dog, or the Dog Wag The Tail?"
Boston Globe, September 13, 1896. 
An 1896 map “as a political cartoon advocating for free and unlimited silver coinage – a departure from the gold standard – to lift the nation out of financial depression,” (Turchi, 2007: 124-125.)

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer

Last Thursday evening, I attended a very intriguing panel discussion called “Starting From Here: Every Place Tells a Story,” organized by the French Institute / Alliance Française.  The event was announced by the following teaser:

“How are stories like maps, and maps like stories?  How do we understand and talk about place?  These are some of the questions the panelists—American writers Reif Larsen and Peter Turchi, French novelist Philippe Vasset, and French geographer Michel Lussault—will consider from the vantages of literature, psychology, and social science.” 

Now, what geographer, especially one who loves to write, could resist attending?  As the teaser mentioned, one of the panelists was Peter Turchi, the author of Maps of the Imagination: the Writer as Cartographer, and the ideas in his book were much discussed during the evening (and afterwards, I shamelessly asked him to autograph my rather untidy and dog-eared copy of the book, which he graciously obliged). 
When I first heard about the premise of his book, Maps of the Imagination, I thought it was a bit of a stretch, to try to shoehorn the two very distinct disciplines of cartography and writing together like that: comparing problems faced by writers (and their solutions) with problems that cartographers face, and to some degree, solve, in map making.  It seemed gimmicky to me: what could the two fields have in common, and what on earth could writers hope to learn by thinking about cartography? 
Once I started reading the book, I stopped worrying about all that.  First of all, I found reading the book terribly enjoyable; it was, as they say, a very pleasurable “read.”  Mr. Turchi’s writing style is sophisticated yet accessible, and he has managed to very succinctly distill some complicated cartographic principles and make it relevant to writers (and anyone else, really).  And considering that he is not a cartographer by training (although he does profess to a life-long love of maps), that is really saying something. 
Secondly, he manages to actually make a cogent argument that there are many similarities between cartography and writing, if not in the actual technical skills involved, then in the thought processes and decision-making that goes into each.  He very persuasively convinces us that writers actually might have something to LEARN from the principles of cartography. 
Thirdly, I was thoroughly transported by some of his literary examples.  Although I write all day long, I am in no way a trained writer, and am especially clueless about the creative writing process, as well as being generally ignorant of modes of literary criticism.  Since this was, for me, a novel way of thinking about the creative process, it was therefore quite interesting and eye-opening.  And some of his literary examples made me want to run out and buy the books he referenced in his examples. 
Fourthly, another major plus is that the book is chock-a-block with very nice (full-color) reproductions of all kinds of historic and unusual maps and map-like images.  That was unexpected!  19th century Pony Express route maps, a 15th century Ottoman Empire map of the Nile delta, a 16th century Aztec map of a hacienda in Mexico, a 12th century Spanish monk’s map commentary of the Apocalypse, to name just a few of the maps in the first two chapters. 
OK, so what are some of his arguments?  How is understanding cartography helpful to writing?  I will attempt to synopsize a couple of the main chapter topics, but I really just recommend reading the book, since my summaries are likely to be entirely inadequate.  
Maps are like stories – information unfolds – the mapmaker tells just the parts that s/he feels are relevant or important to our understanding of the story s/he wants to tell.  Maps and stories, both, are attempts to make sense of the world.  Map makers and writers are explorers, charting new territories, or else are acting as guides through territories familiar to them (but not necessarily familiar to the reader/viewer). 
Blank spots on the map, the parts unsaid, the parts unknown, were originally a device used in map-making when the map-maker literally didn’t know what was there.  But these blank spaces tend to draw in the viewer, and encourage them to use their imaginations.  Likewise, there are certain devices in fiction and poetry that serve the same purpose.  Blank spaces in literature can serve as points of transition, points of meditation, allowing the reader to discover things for herself.  Turchi explores the question of how much to leave in, and what to take out in order for the story to effectively capture the reader without being dull and predictable, or too cluttered with distracting detail.  How close does a writer have to hew to realistic portrayal in order for the reader to understand sufficiently, without the writer having to spell out every last detail?  Can readers “fill in the blanks?” 
The idea that no map is an objective representation of reality has been well-popularized in recent years by Mark Monmonier, Denis Wood, and others.  Maps, however, continue to command an unusual degree of authority, despite the fact that they are basically presenting a particular, and by necessity, a biased perspective of things.  The map-maker persuades us that the map is a “true” depiction of reality.  Similarly, reading a novel, short story, or poem also requires us to suspend disbelief and be persuaded by the author that what we are reading matters, and is true, although we are being asked to interpret a world created by the writer.  The first “lie” with maps, of course, is that on a flat piece of paper (or other media), what we are really looking at is the three-dimensional world.  An irregular oblate spheroid has been squashed flat, stretched, torn, compressed, and subject to shearing in various places, and reduced almost beyond recognition, but it still represents reality.  Likewise, a writer of fiction will try to convince us that these chicken scratches on a piece of paper are all we need to look at to create or re-create a world. 
Turchi brings in the matter of map projections and mapping conventions to further develop these analogies, and in the process cites many obscure, unusual, and also well-known examples throughout the book to illustrate his lines of reasoning.  In the board game “Risk,” for example, he points out how the Mercator projection places Europe at the center of the map, and minimizes the size of Africa and South America, to arrive at “a map of the planet distorted in the interest of good-natured world domination,” (p. 176).  And the board game “Monopoly,” being a highly stylized map of Atlantic City real estate, is “distorted in the interest of high rollers,” (p. 177).
He deconstructs the meaning in maps and then applies that deconstruction to writing.  Even for someone well-versed in cartographic history and the uses and mis-uses of maps, it is quite an interesting exposition, and Turchi offers a unique and fresh outlook on cartography that perhaps only a thoughtful non-geographer can do.    
At the event on Thursday evening, only one of the four panelists was an actual geographer, the other three being writers with a geographical bent.  What struck me (and undoubtedly others in the audience, including our own EES Geography Program’s Katie Gill, who mentioned this during the audience Q&A) was each of their strong recollections of their childhood fascination with maps, and the influence that this early study of maps had on their eventual lives and their writing.  As panel discussions go, it was quite entertaining; the moderator did a masterful job of putting out provocative questions to the four panelists.  As in every event like this, it just scratched the surface of some fascinating viewpoints, whetting the appetite for more. 

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, by Peter Turchi (2007, paperback).

Script Generator, by Philippe Vasset, (2005).  A novel about a mining geologist in Liberia who discovers part of a software manual for a program that computer-generates screenplays, novels, etc., and purports to be able to do away with the need for writers forever.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen (2010, reprint).  A novel about 12-year old genius cartographer who undertakes an adventurous cross-country trip – complete with “his” maps and drawings. 

L’Homme Spatial (2007); and 
De la Lutte des Classes a la Lutte des Places, by Michel Lussault (2009).  (Class Struggle, Place [Location?] Struggle) presents Lussault’s original geographical approach and explains the importance of geography in social life.  Lussault is arguably the most important Geographer in France today (he is also the President of Lyons University), but he does not publish in English. 


  1. The dog map/cartoon is anatomically correct! just look where they put New jersey! I always said NJ is America's ....... !

  2. HA HA! Your comment reminds me of SNL's Fred Armisen's impersonation of Gov. Patterson saying "New Jersey!" in a disgusted tone of voice! LOL!!