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A wander with maps

“Tom Sawyer, what’s a map for? Ain’t it to learn you facts?”
“Of course.”
“Well, then, how’s it going to do that if it tells lies? That’s what I want to know.”
“Shucks, you muggins! It don’t tell lies.”
— Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad

As he rides in an airship with Tom Sawyer and Jim (how they wound up on this airship, which was on display in St. Louis, is a long story), Huckleberry Finn is thoroughly confused. The maps of his childhood taught him that his country was a patchwork of pastel colors that neatly fit together, a place where borders were clearly defined and visible.

Fun fact: “spam” is “maps” spelled backward. (Image source: worldmapsonline.com)

But after flying for hours, Huck begins to worry about their lack of progress — how far could they have gone if the ground below hasn’t changed color? Tom Sawyer, both incredulous and annoyed, explains that the pinks and yellows on those maps were simply tricks to make it easier to read. When Huck refuses to believe this, Tom Sawyer eventually tells Huck to just shut up.

Huck’s overly-literal reading of maps is funny because it is such an egregious misunderstanding of what a map is. The purpose of a map is that it depicts something real without being real itself. So in that sense, all maps must “lie.” They have to compress, omit, and accentuate, otherwise they’d be unreadable.

Tom Harrison, one of the few men alive still making maps by hand, says that “one of the secrets of making a good, easy-to-read, map is what you leave off it.”

“Since the exact duplication of a geographical setting is impossible, a map is actually a metaphor. The mapmaker asks the map reader to believe that a mosaic of points, lines, and areas on a flat sheet of paper is equivalent to a multidimensional world in space and time. To ‘read’ a map, one needs imagination…
To a person who uses his imagination, a map is greater than itself, for it evokes images and emotions not apparent on the piece of paper that is called a map.”
— Phillip C. Muehrcke and Juliana O. Muekrcke, Maps in Literature

Mankind’s fondness for maps can be measured by the sheer quantity that we have produced — and which we continue to produce today.

We map our genes. Our elections. Our galaxy (beautiful; zoom all the way out — but be patient, as it can take a minute to load). Our landfills. We map the past (like how the streets of Chicago were divided up among its brutal gangs during the 1930s). We map our world with the lights on:

Image source: NASA

We map the wind. We debate the accuracy (and inherent biases) of the maps we use. We map the inconsequential (the New Yorker has an interactive map of every restaurant it has reviewed in New York City). There is even a map showing New Yorkers where they can go at sunset to capture beautiful photos like this one, which my brother took:

Not satisfied with space or wind or the earth’s surface, we have mapped the sea floor. All of these maps, along with countless others, can seen by anyone with access to the internet — which, of course, has been mapped itself.

Maps have even become verbs — mapping suggests defining, clarifying. We map out a way forward, we map essays before we write them, we map our minds to organize them.

I needn’t go through the history of maps to illustrate just how different our maps today are from the ones of our ancestors — partly because I don’t know the history of maps, and also because you can probably guess the story: we’ve been creating maps for a long time (some have argued that the earliest cave paintings contain a map of the night sky). Anaximander is credited with making the first map of the known world (though we can only guess what that map looked like). Others improved on this map, Ptolemy especially. Maps became more accurate, and some even became works of art:

Detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s map of the Chiana Valley in Tuscany. Leonardo created this for his patron/employer, Cesare Borgia — a rather unsavory character who supposedly served as Machiavelli’s inspiration for The Prince.
The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican. One of the most stunningly beautiful places I have ever stood. Photo source (because theirs isn’t crowded with tourists): WSJ

Granted, I skipped over a few parts. But the overall gist is that maps were important and valuable enough for people to keep creating them. One of Napoleon’s greatest advantages, according to Paul Johnson, was his genius at translating a two-dimensional map into a three-dimensional battlefield. It’s a point worth considering: a man responsible for 3.5 million casualties over a 12-year period, came to power, in part, because of his ability to read maps.

A detail from a recently discovered map used by the Japanese during WWII. Another map with potential life-and-death consequences. (Source: National Geographic).

What does this have to do with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? Two things. First, while maps have always “lied” in some sense, they have communicated some very important truths — like where hills and mountains and roads and ports stood — which had very real consequences for the people reading them.

Second, the maps I’ve featured have all fit under Huck’s grammatically abominable “learn you facts” category. They have all shown, or attempted to show, real places, real phenomena, and how things really were at a certain point in time. But human beings have long felt compelled to map places and worlds that were never real. And these, I’d argue, are some of the most meaningful (and popular) maps we have today — the ones that never tried to teach us anything, but simply took us to places that could only be found by imagining them.


If a novel’s opening line is an invitation to enter a new world, then a map is an invitation to linger, revisit, explore, discover. Books and maps make wonderful companions. A map can show us where the shoreline is, but only words can tell us how the waves roll in and the sound they make as they crash onto the shore. Words can convey those essential things which can’t be measured and plotted; while a map can reveal more than a hundred pages of text.

“As many writers point out, the very fact that a map does not reproduce reality is its great allure… Writers may be especially attracted to maps because they are so well acquainted with the limitations of written communications.”
— Phillip C. Muehrcke and Juliana O Muekrcke, Maps in Literature
Map from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is a lovely example of how well these companions sit together. Stevenson created Treasure Island, by, well, first creating Treasure Island. According to an essay Stevenson wrote, the map came first and the story followed (even though we’d probably assume that you could only map the territory after you’ve created the story in your head—then again, we’d probably assume that Saint-Exupéry could only talk to the Little Prince after he’d written him; this wasn’t the case):

“On one of these occasions I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully colored; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbors that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’”
—Robert Louis Stevenson,
My First Book—Treasure Island

William Faulkner mapped the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where more than 12 of his books and 30 of his stories take place. (Yoknapatawpha even had a census: its population in 1936 stood at 25,611)

Notice the “surveyed & mapped for this volume by William Faulkner” at the bottom.

A.A. Milne mapped the magical world of Christopher Robin and his animal friends. Thomas Hardy used a map of Dorsetshire (a real county in England) for his stories, though he changed the county’s name to South Wessex in his books. Sherwood Anderson mapped the fictional Winesburg, Ohio (which was supposedly based on Clyde, Ohio, the small town where he grew up). J.R.R. Tolkien commissioned a woman who had studied mapmaking in the Ministry of Defense to create his Middle Earth maps — and was so pleased with her work that he introduced her to C. S. Lewis, for whom she mapped Narnia. (Devoted Tolkien fans have created a spectacular interactive map of Middle Earth).

Maps are by no means consigned to old fiction. George R.R. Martin’s popular Game of Thrones series has its own map, as does the dystopian world of the Hunger Games trilogy. The marauder maps from Harry Potter, rather fittingly, have magical powers. The measurements and maps that crowd the margins of The Selected Works of TS Spivet are just wonderful. And, of course, we are used to seeing maps in the stories we encounter on screen (in a lovely blend of reality and fiction, there’s a map showing where almost 1,000 different movies have been filmed). Two of my favorites maps-in-movies moments:

(1) Indiana Jones tells us that “X never, ever marks the spot” (until of course, it does).

(2) We enter Casablanca through maps and a spinning globe (which, as a professor of James Madison University has pointed out, bears a striking resemblance to Google Earth).

And then there are the beautiful passages about maps themselves, where an author draws a map more vividly with words than a cartographer could with lines.

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’
“But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird — a silly little bird. Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river. Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can’t trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water — steamboats! Why shouldn’t I try to get charge of one? I went on along Fleet Street, but could not shake off the idea. The snake had charmed me.”
— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

When I sat down to write this post, the very first thing that came to mind was this real (but outdated) map Michael Herr looked at while he lived in Vietnam and covered the war:

“There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real anymore. For one thing, it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Frenchman, since the map had been made in Paris. The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted. Vietnam was divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, and to the west past Laos and Cambodia sat Siam, a kingdom. That’s old, I’d tell visitors, that’s a really old map.
If dead ground could come back and haunt you the way dead people do, they’d have been able to mark my map current and burn the ones they’d been using since ’64, but count on it, nothing like that was going to happen. It was late ’67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind. We knew that the uses of most information were flexible, different pieces of ground told different stories to different people. We also knew that for years now there had been no country here but the war.”
— Michael Herr, Dispatches

As maps have changed, so have we, and so has our relationship with them. Once static and printed — they could buckle in their frames; they had blank spaces inviting young men to explore them — our maps are mostly dynamic, digital, (and personalized).

“Maps are not reality at all — they can be tyrants. I know people who are so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside they pass through, and others who, having traced a route, are held to it as though held by flanged wheels to rails.
There are map people whose joy is to lavish more attention on the sheets of colored paper than on the colored land rolling by. I have listened to accounts by such travelers in which every road number was remembered, every mileage recalled, and every little countryside discovered. Another kind of traveler requires to know in terms of maps exactly where he is pin-pointed at every moment, as though there were some kind of safety in black and red lines, in dotted indications and squirming blue of lakes and the shadings that indicate mountains. It is not so with me. I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found, nor much identification from shapes which symbolize continents and states.”
— John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

The maps Steinbeck maligns weren’t digital, but you feel that the ones we use today have become even more tyrannical than Steinbeck could have thought possible. Instantly accessible, we use them constantly, and with little sense of wonder; opening a map carries no more excitement than scanning the Yellow Pages once did. We no longer read maps, we wait for them to load and then follow their orders. Provided one has a signal, getting lost is now a choice.

Yet there is still something sacred about maps; something that inspires us to map the fictional worlds we love (perhaps so that others can explore them too?); something that inspires us to spend hours creating maps for which they won’t get paid (like mapping the world of literature, for example); something that inspires us to frame maps and hang them on our walls.

Maybe they’re just nice to look at, or we simply enjoy the nostalgia. Perhaps we are drawn to the order and tidiness that maps provide. Maybe it’s that a map is a reminder — an invitation? — that we have more places to see, more exploring to do. Or maybe it’s that when we create maps, we are in complete control in a way that we seldom are in our chaotic, uncertain lives; and when we read them, we get to spend time in a different world, and for a moment, forget the weight of our very real existence.

Note: this article was originally published on http://epstephens.com