Sunday, January 31, 2010

Books I'm Reading: Strange Maps

I've just finished reading Strange Maps (Viking Studio, 2009), by Frank Jacobs--one of the most pleasurable reads I've had in some time. Strange Maps is subtitled An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities, and that it is--a collection of odd maps (map broadly defined) collected from the many that have been featured on the Strange Maps Blog. It is a choice selection of some of the most interesting and whimsical cartographical creations you're likely to find.

I picked this book up off the counter at Borders just before Christmas, where someone had left it, squashing candy bars or something in front of one of the registers. As I walked by, finally headed for one of the cashiers (after the longest wait in a bookstore I've ever experienced--about 40 minutes) something made me grab it and add it to my stack. My gain. Too bad for the person that abandoned it at the last minute. (If you're out there and have had second thoughts, go back and get a copy.)

The maps are arranged in broad categories such as Cartographic Misconceptions (maps that simply got it wrong); Zoomorphic Maps (as the name implies); Political Parody; and Strange Borders (why are the outlines of so many countries seemingly illogical?), among many others. One section is devoted to unusual maps of Manhattan, one to maps used as propaganda, one to maps as thought experiments (mapping the world of alternative realities--for example, a map of Europe based on the assumption that the Nazis won WWII), another to maps based on the familiar London Underground route map, yet another to maps of places in outer space. If you're not already salivating, this book is probably not up your alley.

Some of my favorites:
  • Drawn from Memory: United Shapes of America
A collection of children's drawings of the outline of the United States. They range from fairly accurate to remarkably amorphous. As the commentary points out, a few features seem to lodge themselves fairly easily in the mind--notably the Florida peninsula. Others are almost uniformly mangled--for example, the Great Lakes region. Alaska and Hawai'i get short shrift almost without fail. I found this one amusing as it reminded me of sitting around with friends from the UK in Tokyo, drinking wine, trying to draw maps of each other's countries from memory on the backs of napkins. On the whole, my English friends were better at drawing the US than the kids asked to draw the US for this map were. Of course, my friends are adults. Sadly, I'd venture to guess that my (admittedly, mostly highly educated) English friends can draw a map of the United States better than the average adult US citizen. Lest I seem condescending, I plan to post a map here of the UK that I've drawn from memory--when I get around to it. A sad sight it's likely to be, and you can laugh all you like.

(I have a feeling this blog entry will be way too long when it's finally finished.)
  • Scott's Great Snake; or the Anaconda Plan
  • The Jesusland Map
  • A New Simplified Map of London
  • Oklahoma's Stillborn Twin: The State of Sequoyah
  • The Circle and the Wedge: Delaware's Curious Border
  • May the Sauce be with You: Battle Lines of the Barbecue Wars
  • Bubbleland--Not Far from Monkey's Eyebrow: The Kentucky Bend
  • Your Antipodes Most Likely Have fins
  • From Spuyten Duyvil to Battery Park: A Wordmap of Manhattan
  • Itineraries Into Eternity and Back
I think this last may be my favorite of them all. It is a "route map" in the style of the London Underground map we all know and love to paths from birth to death (or rebirth or eternal damnation) as conceived by the world's major religions. Hilarious. I especially like the footnote about the "closed" route from birth directly to Limbo for unbaptized babies, shut down in 2006 by papal decree. The map shows the main routes through the religious life for Muslims, Jews, Christians (Catholics), Buddhists, Hindus, and believers in Shamanism. I don't see any path indicated for us atheists.   
  • Turn the Other Cheek: The French Kissing Map
  • Super Interesting: The World from a Brazilian Perspective
  • One Small Stroll for Man: The First Moonwalk. 
Having picked out favorites, I should say the maps are interesting almost without exception. In an ideal world, I'd be able to describe each of these, but the world is not ideal, as we all know.

Highly recommended. I recommend both the Strange Maps Blog and the book, Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities that collects some of the most interesting maps from the site.

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