Monday, June 17, 2013

On the Map by Simon Garfield

Source of book: Borrowed from my brother.

Last year, my brother gave me a copy of Just My Type, a delightful book on typography by Simon Garfield. Imagine our delight when Garfield followed up that book with one on the history of mapmaking. This book did not disappoint.

I have loved maps as long as I can remember, whether the road atlas our family used when taking vacations, or our trusty Thomas Guide to Los Angeles County. I spent hours studying them, and planning routes. By the time I obtained my driver’s permit at age 15, I could draw out the freeway system of the northern half of Los Angeles from memory (and most of the southern half as well). I could do a credible job of the interstate highways in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico; and the major streets of the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up. While my street-level knowledge of Los Angeles has faded a bit with time and disuse, I still carry a map in my head of many of the places I have been.

Real places weren’t enough, either. I designed my own worlds. I could be entertained for days with a ruler, paper, and pencil, drawing up imaginary cities, complete with individual houses and shops that I designed as well. (Alas, I seem to have lost all of my maps - many of which took up entire rooms of folded out. I do, however, have most of my house plans that I drew up in my junior high days. Ten feet to the inch, floor plans plus exterior elevations painstakingly drawn to scale.) So yes, I love maps.

As Robert Louis Stevenson (whose map of Treasure Island appears in the book) said about his own love for maps, “here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any may with eyes to see or twopenceworth of imagination to understand with!”

Simon Garfield is not one of those authors who decide to write a book, and then learn about the topic. Both Just My Type and On the Map came after the author’s long standing fascination with the topic, and his (somewhat nerdy) enthusiasm is catching. In addition to recognizing a fellow map lover, I found that I shared his ambivalence about satellite navigation. We both worry that it has led to an ignorance of how to read a map, and to a lack of awareness of one’s surroundings. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have an available navigation app available in an unfamiliar place - and have considered carrying one while hiking just in case. Still, I always get a map when I travel to a new city, or hike to a new area of the mountains, and study it in advance to know the basic features of where I will be.

(Side note: for those of us in California, I highly recommend the Tom Harrison hiking maps for their accuracy and durability.)

I knew I was going to like this book when I first cracked it open and discovered that the inside binding had a map of the world drawn to look like the iconic map of the London Tube system, by Mark Ovenden. The original Tube map is one of the finest works of practical map-making ever. During the week I spent in London, we took the Tube everywhere (except where we walked), and the map was amazing for its usefulness, clarity, and its beauty. It is instantly recognizable by anyone who loves maps. 

The history of mapmaking essentially begins with Claudius Ptolemy (the scholar, not to be confused with the mythical ruler of Thebes or any of the various Ptolemys that ruled Egypt in the 300 years before the birth of Christ), whose map of the known world (at least that known to Western Civilization), created in the Second Century AD, would remain in use for over a thousand years. Ptolemy was from Alexandria, which was the center of knowledge in the Roman world. The great library of Alexandria, created in 330 BC, aspired to contain all the knowledge in the world - and probably came remarkably close to doing so. It burned in 48 BC (probably an accident), and had subsequent damage, but kept being rebuilt until its final destruction in 641 AD by the Muslim armies of Caliph Omar. Omar, who actually studied under Muhammad himself, had no use for books. When asked about the fate of the library, he is said to have replied, “If the contents of the books are in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case, the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed then, and destroy them.” All book lovers everywhere are now in serious pain upon hearing this. (See my note below on my personal experiences with this poisonous philosophy.)

Mapmakers subsequent to Ptolemy were faced with the difficulty of filling in the unknown areas of the globe. (The earth was known to be round and its current size long before Columbus.) Many chose to fill the gaps with mythical creatures. Although no ancient map actually said, “Here be Dragons,” many other fun creatures often appeared. Sea serpents. And, on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, what may well have been C. S. Lewis’ inspiration for the Dufflepuds. 

There are also some really peculiar errors that persisted long after they were known to be errors. Most of us who grew up in California know that it was at one time thought to be an island. (The very first maps, correctly, showed it attached to the mainland, but it drifted free around 1622.) Of course, this was eventually corrected in most maps as it became clear that we were attached to the mainland. However, believe it or not, a map made in Japan in 1865 still showed California as an island, despite the fact that it was a state - and despite the fact that the first transcontinental railroad was already under construction, and would be completed a mere four years later.

The book is just filled with interesting historical notes, such as the fact that noted atlas pioneer Willem Blaeu got his start working with astronomer Tycho Brahe. (Who, incidentally, lost his nose in a duel, and wore a metal prosthetic which he glued on.) Or the fact that a Blaeu atlas cost the equivalent of $40,000 - but still sold over 1500 copies. Or that the first real use of “limelight” was by Thomas Drummond, who did the first British “ordnance survey” in the 1820s. It would later find use on the stage, of course.

A great line by the author on the new “strip maps” that contained inns and public houses and other travel necessities:

They prepared the traveller, coachman, and prospective highwayman as never before. It was now possible to read the distances and calculate where to stop for a meal or a night robbery.

I was thrilled to find a mention of a map used in a court case. Actually, it was published during a famous British case from 1817, in which a woman was murdered, and her body discovered in a pit. The case turned in large part on whether the accused had an alibi. The map in question was made by a teacher and amateur geographer. The map did much to influence public opinion. But, the case got even weirder. The defendant decided to challenge the victim’s brother to “trial by battle,” the ancient method of settling disputes which eventually gave rise to the profession of lawyer. (One could hire someone to fight the battle on one’s behalf. Fortunately for me, size is no longer much of an asset in legal disputes.) Amazingly, the court agreed! And then, having won his point, the defendant fled to the New World and disappeared. Chicken.

The other interesting thing about this case was the casual way that the assumptions of “rape culture” were accepted. The victim’s gravestone moralizes about the terrible fate she suffered “having incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement without proper protection.” Meaning that she went to a dance without a man to protect her, which naturally lead to her rape and murder. Yep. That’s what caused it, not the acts of a violent murderer. (Sounds a little like the Taliban, no?)

Another mention of the attitudes of the time occurred in the discussion of the explorations of Henry Stanley (“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”) in Africa. He was enlisted by King Leopold II of Belgium to explore and conquer for him, with the explanation, “It is a question of creating a new state, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the Negroes. That would be absurd.” Ah, yes. The good old days of European Colonialism.

I did disagree with the author on one cultural issue. In a sidebar regarding maps and women, he leans in the direction that woman read maps differently than men, focusing on landmarks rather than big picture overhead views. The research he cited does not seem convincing to me, although his general point is interesting. Just my general observation, but, I have found that many people cannot navigate by map; and men and women are equally representative of this category. I have not observed a general trend in favor of male map skills. Also, while I consider myself to be good with maps, my wife is also an excellent navigator, and defies the stereotype of women that cannot rotate objects in three dimensions. So no, I don’t think that our current map formats are geared toward men so much as that we patronize females and discourage them from learning the skills.

On a related note, I do agree with the author that the use of GPS has led to a decline in navigational skills among both men and women. I do think the author engages in a bit of alarmist hyperbole in his claim (I think he is serious, but not sure) that if the GPS system went down, society would collapse and only those that could run a plow would survive. A bit too much like the Y2K panic.

In addition to the many maps of our home planet, Garfield also mentions star maps - and the early maps of Mars. Earlier this year, I read and reviewed A Princess of Mars, which contains much of the mythology that arose during these early years, when Mars was thought to have canals and civilizations, and to be running out of water. (A key plot point in Burroughs’ book.)

One final fun note. The South American island of Trinidad (not to be confused with the better known Trinidad in the Caribbean) was once believed to be the hiding place of pirate treasure. Multiple expeditions were sent there to search for the gold, but it was never found. However, everyone complained about the crabs. Large land crabs that were as pesky as mice, but more disconcerting. Apparently the Island was a Mecca of sorts for crustaceans. While the explorers were not so thrilled, Stephen Maturin, the fictional spy and surgeon in Patrick O’Brian’s delightful series, noted the birds and the invertebrates with equal enthusiasm during his stopover. 

This is a fun book for anyone who loves maps, and even for those who are not, perhaps. As usual, Garfield mixes information with memorable anecdotes and brings the topic to life with his own love for the topic at hand.  

Note on Caliph Omar:

The fundamental education philosophy of Bill Gothard’s home schooling program is that all knowledge is contained within Scripture. Thus, rather than having separate subjects, everything was supposed to flow out of a study of the Bible. In this case, not just the Bible, but the Sermon on the Mount. Literally. The entire curriculum was based on three chapters in the New Testament. Sure, there were lots of ideas for study that grew out of each verse, but to competently teach from that “curriculum” alone would require a tremendous ability to recreate a course in each subject.

I never really did the “curriculum,” as I was nearly done with high school at the time we enrolled, and I continued with my academically rigorous courses. My parents continued to supplement my siblings’ studies with regular curriculum and made sure we were all well educated. None of us had any difficulty with college level courses later on.

That said, I do not know anyone who was educated solely by the Gothard curriculum (not supplemented by regular school books) who attained a passable knowledge of mathematics, science, history, or any other subject, really. And don’t get me started on the attitude toward literature, which is pretty much the same as Caliph Omar’s view of knowledge. Oops too late.

The fundamental idea that Gothard set forth is that the only route to truth is through Scripture, and Scripture alone. Not just the truth about God. The truth about everything. All one had to do in order to know everything one needed - and to have success in life (basic principle #7) - was to study and meditate on Scripture. If it was worth knowing, it was found in the Book of Allah the Bible, and if it wasn’t in the Book of Allah the Bible, it was probably a lie and not worth knowing. This “truth” was illustrated, like most of Gothard’s ideas, with a story. Supposedly, the division of the Secret Service that investigates counterfeiting trains their agents to detect counterfeit bills simply by having them study the real thing. Thus proving the point that to know truth, all one needs do is read the Bible.

Except that this story happens to be completely false. Examining the real thing is merely a part of the training, and agents also study clever counterfeits as well. (Um, this seems pretty obvious, but fact checking is not always a strong point these days. We need more Bereans.)

In practice, this means that books are generally looked on with suspicion, and must first prove that they agree with the particular theology of Gothard - or Douglas Phillips - in the case of those groups influenced by Vision Forum.

In the group my wife was in, the more “committed” adherents forbade nearly all fiction. (Because made up stories are lies, right?) Particularly any ones that involved magic, talking animals, or anything that wouldn’t happen in real life. Some books were forbidden because the children in them told lies or disobeyed their parents. (Even if they suffered appropriate consequences, oddly.) Skirts that were deemed too short were altered by drawing the “correct” length. It was clearly safer to limit oneself to missionary biographies. Or the Elsie Dinsmore books, which were apparently okay despite despicable racism, favorable treatment of slavery, quasi-incestuous relationships, and what I find to be a warped sense of morality. Of course, maybe the slavery thing was part of the appeal.  And they did present a view of absolute obedience by children, and the proper male-female hierarchy, which is why Vision Forum describes Elsie as the ideal representation of Christian womanhood.

Just to be clear, my wife’s parents did not agree with this teaching - and encouraged her to read literature. But she was really the only one in the group who did.

So yes, the modern version of Caliph Omar exists here close to home.

Another line by the author in On the Map puts this in perspective. “[A] less fearful religious worldview created a quest for knowledge that for centuries had been considered irrelevant to a life of modest Christian duty.”

There really is a huge contrast between the desires of Sir Isaac Newton and other early scientists to discover the creation, and the earlier focus on obedience to the Mother Church.

I have mentioned before the Reconstructionist desire to return to a mythical “Christian Past.” For most of them, this seems to be the Antebellum South, but I think Douglas Wilson is more honest about the real goal: a return to the “idyllic” times before the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment freed the search for truth from the death grip of official Church orthodoxy. To those times when the masses wouldn’t worry about finding knowledge - and indeed were largely illiterate - but would simply pursue a life of modest Christian duty as defined by those in power. And this is why it is so important to them to keep out any knowledge that runs contrary to (their particular interpretation) of Scripture. (I still really need to do a post on the problems with Theonomy and why it has cost the Church credibility - although I started in my post on Women in Old Testament times.)

I choose to stand with John Milton regarding truth: "Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and even encounter?"

If you are scared about opposing viewpoints, maybe you aren’t really sure that you have the truth. If you do not wish for others to seek knowledge that might contradict your viewpoint, are you really sure that you are right?

Further note on Reconstructionism:

I have been asked why I focus so much on Reconstructionism, and its main proponents within the Christian Patriarchy Movement. (For those keeping score, they would be Bill Gothard, Douglas Phillips, Douglas Wilson, Gary North, Jonathan Lindvall, and the Pearls.)

The reason why is that I am a product of homeschooling, and homeschool my kids, and I am deeply distressed that the Reconstructionists/Patriarchists have pretty much taken over mainstream homeschooling, and are influencing the Evangelical church in some pernicious ways. This year, Phillips was the keynote speaker at the CHEA convention, the largest homeschool convention in California. The same is true of other states. Our local homeschooling groups contain many Vision Forum acolytes, and even our local Facebook information group (which is NOT limited to Christians) was recently hijacked by a Vision Forum follower posting articles claiming that Christians should never use birth control.

I really am disturbed that this is the trend in conservative Christian circles, and I do not think it will end well.

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