Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Destination: Close Your Eyes and Point

Bookstores contain worlds within them, offering readers stories beyond the borders of their experience. The new collection of maps at Booksmith, on display in our events' space downstairs, is, well, "mapping" this natural relationship between a reader and the world.

As I stood in Booksmith's basement, contemplating the impressive 73"x48" National Geographic Executive Wall Map, tracing the contours of countries on the Michelin World Map, admiring the continental color scheme of the World Tyvek Wall Map, I was remembering another map, one that hung in the basement of my childhood home, in what my family called "the ham radio room." Here my dad disappeared for hours on end to pursue his hobby as a ham radio operator, talking to distant countries in a mysterious Morse code that often interrupted our television’s reception, blurring the faces of a sitcom into a rhythm of snowfields and static.

I saw the world for the first time in that room, on the large map that hung on the wall. The multicolored countries, pale pink, mint, and lemon, were pock marked with pin holes, but only two pins remained in my earliest memory, and soon even these were plucked from the map. Their tiny navy blue and red heads indicated, I told my friends proudly whenever they asked to see my father’s mysterious cave, the only two countries in the world my dad had not yet contacted. I recalled this boast recently, when, upon showing a friend my personal library, I replied to a question by saying, with the same satisfaction, that there were only two or three books on the shelves that I had not read.
As I perused the maps in the basement of Booksmith, I wondered about the influence this early knowledge of a wider world had on my sisters and I. Each of us take whatever opportunity we can to see new parts of the world, studying and teaching abroad, or traveling for adventure whenever our budgets allow. A good map can take you to places you never dreamed of going, simply by planting a certain image, an awareness of a whole yet to be seen, a sense that your knowledge of the world is as yet fragmented, incomplete, perhaps even—I thought as I contemplated Booksmith's "Who Said 'North' was 'Up?'" map—upside-down.
 "The life of an individual is in many respects like a child's dissected map," wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Many of these pieces seem fragmentary, but...If I could look back on the whole, as we look at the child's map when it is put together, I feel that I should have my whole life intelligently laid out before me."

This passage is situated as an epigraph to Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps, a travelogue of his journey to the uncharted African coast of Liberia. Greene begins his tale at the consulate, getting his passport stamped for the journey into a plagued and violent land. On the wall he finds "the usual blank map...a few towns along the coast, a few villages along the border."

A few pages later he describes his motivation for his journey as inspired by a particular shape he saw on that map."I thought for some reason even then of Africa, not a particular place, but a shape, a strangeness, a wanting to know. The unconscious mind is often sentimental; I have written 'a shape', and the shape, of course, is roughly that of the human heart."

Greene's journey without a map is only one of many books on the shelves of Destination Literature that speak to the importance of cartography to the way we imagine and perceive the world. Ken Jenning's recently released Maphead is a memoir told through its author's obsession with maps. Andrea Ponsi's delicately illustrated Florence: A Map of Perceptions, takes the reader on a visual tour of Florence's architecture. In the art section you can find Katharine Harmon's gorgeous Map as Art. But it isn't difficult to see how maps operate as art, as mediums through which to conceive of the world anew, inspiring us into new spaces. Simply go to the basement wall, close your eyes, and point.

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