Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Imagined Cities

In the winter, I read to escape. Whether it is from the stress of holiday retail to a silent, open landscape or to a sunny beach from the bleak cold of January, I rely on books to take me to better places, imagined places. This month, I’m reading Lonely Planet’s newly released anthology of travel writing, Better Than Fiction, and it really is as entertaining as a novel if simply for the fact that the inviting landscapes described are places I could actually travel to.

Except for one. In "The Way to Hav," renowned travel writer Jan Morris introduced me to a city I had never heard of. Morris has written two books about the imagined metropolis of Hav, causing some confusion among her readers. In this brief essay, Morris describes the letters she received asking for directions to Hav, and does her best to explain the way. It is, of course, through the imagination, but Hav is not all fancy. Morris traces the very real roots of her city to events, experiences, and encounters with the cities of our world.

Reading about Hav immediately brought to mind Italo Calvino’s whimsically wrought Invisible Cities, which my co-worker Lydia recommended just before the holidays. A perfect gift for this season, especially for those of us low on funds for real travels. Calvino takes the reader to cities so intricately imagined, from topography to culture, that closing this book is like coming home after a long journey to distant lands.

In the spirit of Calvino and Borges comes Dung Kai-Cheung’s recent Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City. The novel is set in a fictional city, Victoria, which has parallels to the Hong Kong of our world. Archaeologists struggle to reconstruct the imagined history of Victoria through maps and historical artifacts, weaving together the narrative of a place through both real and imagined anecdotes.

Given the appeal of imagined lands, it is no surprise that someone should start mapping them. Over the holidays more than one imagined map has shown up at Booksmith. You may have seen The Lands of Ice and Fire on our gift table, a set of maps drawn by cartographer Jonathan Roberts, rendering the fantastical lands of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series as real as those around us. Even more recently, we’ve begun to carry The Infinite Map, inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Wallace spent three years writing his masterpiece which is set mainly in Boston and the Northeast. Major placed events in the book have been carefully mapped by William Beutler the team at Infinite Atlas, and, of course, the map is heavily footnoted. My favorite part is the Legend, which reads: RealFictionalFictionalized, and Approxomite.

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