Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Summer Book Review; Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations

Summer is pretty much the only time I get to devote much time to doing any sort of pleasure reading of books. It's not like I don't read at all it's just that when I'm in school most of my reading is taken up by newspapers, magazines, and that damn internet. After I get my fill there there isn't much time for the books. However, this summer I made a pretty ambitious list of things I'd like to read and I might try to keep you updated on my progress and what I think of what I've read.

Last Book Finished: Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations by Vincent Virga
Pages: 266 (It sucks that I only get credit for 266 because these were massive pages. Although, technically, a lot of them were maps so maybe it balances out)
Total Pages: 266
Time it took me to read: 26 days (about half of it in the last 2. I, uh, had some catching up to do)
Next Book: We'll have to see if the Lawrence Public Library actually has anything from my list checked in this time or not.

As I just said when I showed up at the library soon after my last final I went through several of my first choices only to find they were all checked out which seemed kind of odd considering that I considered a lot of them fairly obscure books. I don't know, maybe not. Then they don't have a copy of Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex which really, really annoys me because I read him describing the parasitic behavior of a specific wasp that turns its roach prey into some sort of a zombie that it then drives back to its burrow to feed to the larvae. Parasites are badass.

But, I'm getting away from the point which is another of my loves, maps. Yeah, this is probably one of the nerdiest books and posts ever so just bear with me. Finally, I settled on this book about using maps to explain civilizations (although that's a really vague description of what it tries to do). It took me forever to find it because it was in the "Oversize" section which is cleverly hidden right out there in the open disguised as a bunch of huge books. I had to interrupt the librarians gossiping about somebody's organic garden or some bullshit to find that out.

Since I chose to walk to the library I had to carry this monstrosity of a book, first, to the liquor store to pick up a 12 pack and then to my home. Hey, it was the last day of school, I can't read all the time.

So, Virga went through the extensive map collection at the Library of Congress to come up with a coherent story about how we as humans came to orient ourselves in the world and explain things about ourselves. The maps in the book stretch from a Babylonian cuneiform tablet showing the layout of agricultural fields from about 1500 BCE to the map of the human genome. It's hard to adequately explain the breadth of maps he chose but he divides the book into several sections focusing on the mapping traditions and maps of the ancient Mediterranean world and then focusing on each continent.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when Virga looks at some of the subtleties of a map within an historical context. One example was a beautiful Japanese screen. In an effort to keep their secrets their own and push back against western expansion the imperial Japanese had banned mapping but these elaborate and ornate screens were a way to map a town and comment on the social life that existed within.

Also fascinating to me is the evolving of the maps Europeans made of Africa and North and South America as they were described. It was kind of difficult for me to imagine having no concept of the shape of the Earth's landmass. Even a map of the shape of Africa was an extremely important state secret for Portugal because the financial health of their nation depended on having exclusive access to a sea route to India.

One amazing map was done by a guy named Waldseemuller in 1507 that was the first map to label this new land "America." It just has the basic shape of what is now the southeastern US and Carribean islands along with something that kind of resembles South America. However, he makes a couple of assumptions about South America that have baffled those who studied the map for years. Waldseemuller depicts the Pacific Ocean as incredibly vast despite the commonly held belief that this ocean was not "discovered" by Europeans for another 6 years when Balboa crossed Panama. He also is surprisingly accurate in his depiction of both the shape and topography of the western coast of South America. Some have speculated that a Portuguese ship trying to sail around Africa may have been blown off course all the way there and somehow made it back or there are also ancient Chinese legends of voyages to a land that could be South America and even stories of massive Chinese trading parties sailing to far off lands in the early 15th Century. Somehow this information may have made it to this German living in France to make this map.

There are way too many interesting stories to tell here and most of you probably stopped reading anyway so I'll wrap it up. My final verdict on the book is that it is an amazing piece of work that weaves together maps with the history and culture of pretty much the entire world. It's really in depth so I don't know if I'd recommend it to someone that didn't have an obsession with this type of stuff like I do although I think anyone could enjoy some of the absolutely gorgeous maps and the different styles on display across the Earth and time.

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Blogger Shawn said...

I think you just made me look into getting a library card. That book sounds amazing.

8:52 AM  

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