Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The New Champion

I have a new winner in the Best Book About Maps category. It's called The Map Addict (you can also view a preview of the book from that link). It is written by Mike Parker, and it is very very good.

Mike Parker is English, and his personal obsession is Ordnance Survey mapping, but the way he describes life inside a map works just as well for those of us who grew up in America. He begins with the kind of obsessive map-travel many of us practised as children, wending our way through road and street maps. In Parker's case, it was the 1:50,000 Landranger Series, but I was picturing an 11-year-old me with my family's Hagstrom and Texaco road maps and a Goode's World Atlas. Parker was obsessed enough to shoplift nearly a complete set of Landrangers in his teens, and he acted as the family's (heck, the neighborhood's) navigator for his young adult life.

The book includes the requisite descriptions of recent cartographic history—the origins of the Ordnance Survey, Bartholomew's, and the A-Z maps—but it all comes back to what it is like to be a map person. He carefully takes down the old canard about men, women and maps ("men read maps, women follow along"). He takes on the dangers of satellite navigation with great good humor. And in the end he turns on his own map addiction, describing what it is like as a map obsessive to wander without a map, to be freed of knowing ahead of time exactly where you are.

A description of the book sounds like a random collection of interesting waypoints: the solar alignment of Milton Keynes, the most boring sheet of Ordnance Survey mapping, the sensuousness of raised-relief mapping, but throughout it, Mike inserts himself and reflects on how his relationship with maps informed and changed his relationship with the world as a whole. As a gay, pagan travel writer and TV commentator, many conventional Englishmen and women would see him as weird, but his relationship with maps is tied to a quite normal English domestic way of being: Enid Blyton stories and a nice cup of tea, and the world laid out comfortably surveyed. All adventures contained.

He talks about how a mappy way of thinking about the world can and does lead to a kind of cranky, even dangerous, sense of normality. Many of his heroes turned into cranks in their old age, and he alludes to a kind of proto-fascist mentality lurking in any well-settled society.

The book is witty, and it reminded me how important humor is in discussing the things I like to talk about here. Humor is a way of pointing sideways to uncomfortable things, and Parker does it so well, you may not even recognize the discomforts he is talking about. We would all do well to pay attention to that.

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