Monday, November 22, 2004

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer
by Peter Turchi
Trinity University Press 242 pages, $24.95.

During the 2004 election, the TV networks featured their maps of America: the few blue states surrounding the wide field of red states. But afterwards there were other versions flooding the Internet. Weighted according to population, the blue states swelled and curved around the shrunken center of red. Maps of color-coded counties showed a panorama of red cut with shards of blue. But coding according to precinct and proportioned by population produced thin stripes and swirls of red and blue across the map.

One website put side by side a map of the blue and red states, and a map of the free and slave states: a close match. And in my email I found a map of North America that linked the blue states with "our neighbor to the north" to produce the new nation of the United States of Canada, edging and topping a broad red plain dubbed Jesusland.

Maps tell stories, which is more or less the starting point for Peter Turchi's meditations on the manifold relationship of maps and mapmaking with books and writing. Turchi teaches writing and he knows the literature that tends to interest writers. But non-writers can profit by his ruminations as well, especially readers looking for ways to consider revered authors who work in less conventionally naturalistic forms.

In a way, this book confounds the Gregory Bateson dictim that the map is not the territory. In this case, the map is quite a journey. For example, Turchi notes that in Arctic Dreams, a book by Barry Lopez, there is a map of the Alaska coast drawn by a Native American fisherman. "The product of years of mental mapmaking, the map shows the coast as seen from above---that is, it offers a view the fisherman had never seen---yet the map is extraordinarily accurate." The map is a mental construct, based on experience of the senses. This suggests what the Italian writer, Italo Calvino, noted about reading the great Argentine writer, Jose Luis Borges: that while much of 20th century writing attempts to express the chaotic flow of existence, Borges represents another tendency (which Calvino would himself explore) of imposing a mental order---"a rigorous geometry"--- on that chaos. This leads Turchi to a consideration of Borges, Nabokov, and the games of Risk, Monopoly and chess, ending this relatively brief section with an analysis of Roadrunner cartoons.

Besides the fine and lively prose, there are wonderful maps and other well-chosen illustrations. Physically this is an unusually handsome book, with comfortably thick and well-bound pages, and an attractive typeface and layout. It even feels good and well-balanced in the hand. These are not minor virtues, especially when combined with this text. For this is a book to savor, to explore, to hold and to keep.

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