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Maps as Fascinating Book

Maps as Fascinating Book

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A map from the Cartographia collection. Source: Reprinted with permission of the Library of Congress hide caption

toggle caption Source: Reprinted with permission of the Library of Congress

The book, Cartographia, is a stunning collection of maps, and the stories they tell about the world and the people in it. We'll hear from Vincent Virga, the picture editor who put the collection together, on the radio today. And he also had an interesting story to tell on the blog:

I am a visual person. I think in pictures. If I need my glasses or my keys, I show myself where they are in my mind's eye; I don't tell myself where they are in words. Are you a visual or a verbal person? (Where are your keys right now?) Like me and all of you visual people, maps archive information in pictures. Most historians of all stripes are verbal people, word people with little or no visual literacy. Hence, most history books never use maps as cultural landscapes or social documents; if they do include maps they are usually charts or graphs. Being incapable of envisioning maps as visual metaphors, traditional historians have narrowed map studies for centuries to Who, When, How, and Where the maps were made. About thirty years ago, visually gifted cartographic historians, such as the great J.B Harley, began to ask Why maps were made, what attitudes and ideologies were the mapmakers expressing? A new nature of maps was revealed. Mapmakers were seen as translating ideas into graphic form. Put in historical and cultural context, maps have intriguing stories to tell and each culture expresses itself in its own unique way. This is bliss for a person like me who thinks in pictures! This is the life-enhancing, eye-opening vision of mapping human culture that is Cartographia.

-Vincent Virga



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My favorite map is my star chart. It pierces the veil of my light polluted skies and allows me to hunt for distant and spectacular Deep Sky Objects.

Sent by Tim | 2:47 PM | 12-12-2007

I can spend a surprising amount of time on Google Earth. Very entertaining for an informative medium.

Sent by Niesey Heckart | 2:50 PM | 12-12-2007

there was recent exhibition on pre-colonial and colonial mexican maps at the newberry library in chicago. there was this great map in which indigenous aristocrats attempted to justify property claims by showing genealogy within the landscape. it was fascinating because it is just one of the interesting interchanges between not only the encounters between european conceptions of maps/space and indigenous ones but also different types of maps (property vs. geography).

Sent by steve | 2:51 PM | 12-12-2007

In addition to looking at existing maps, I feel that the process of mapping is also of great importance. As an architect I am constantly amazed by the power of mapping to reveal conditions about the world around us.

Sent by Mike Eggers | 2:53 PM | 12-12-2007

My favorite map is the London Underground. I have always enjoyed maps to get a overall outlook of where I am and where I have been.

Sent by Jon | 2:55 PM | 12-12-2007

Could the love of maps be genetic? I have always loved maps and in fact work in a field (landscape design) where I draw and work from 'maps' in the form of blueprints. Years later while going through my grandfathers things I found a collection of 'maps': tax maps, air raid shelter maps, topo maps, subway maps and realized that he too was fascinated by the overhead view. I never met him so he did not influence my choices. Could the preference for this form of perspective be tied to a right-brain/left-brain dominance or something else that can be explained by genetics?

Sent by Sharon | 2:56 PM | 12-12-2007

Has anyone seen the Australia maps where the South Pole is at the top and the world is "upside down?"

Sent by Larry | 2:56 PM | 12-12-2007

Im wondering what you feel about the difference between maps and graphs, between copying the real and just relation between points. For example the london underground is an easy to read graph of how things connect but its useless as a street map. To a lesser extent the opposite is true of the New York subway map. Do people like one over the other, is one any more original from the maker?

Sent by Dan | 2:59 PM | 12-12-2007

My father in law has been collecting maps since the 1970s, mostly of the Middle East. Last year he decided to get some maps reframed. During that process, they dis coved not one, not two, but three maps by Ortelius, from the late 1500s. They are truly beautiful!

Sent by Mark | 3:00 PM | 12-12-2007

This was an excellent discussion that drew me out of the shower. I love what you said about Chinese maps and the 5 directions--The self being such an integral part of place.
I also love maps. I enjoy the psycho-social aspect of current and historical maps.
I also want to say that I have studied the Medicine Wheel (like a Lakota wheel), and these wheels are very important maps. They can be psychological, spiritual, geographic, etc. This teaches us a lot about ourselves, our psyche, and our place in the world.

I also love compasses as a metaphor for how we understand ourselves in place and space.

One more comment is about astrological maps/charts. These are from a Western mystical tradition of mapping the souls journey in this life, much like the Egyptian maps you spoke of.
thank you so much.

Sent by Sydney Francis | 3:02 PM | 12-12-2007

I too love maps. My favorite hangs in a matted frame over the mantle. It was published by National Geographic and displays our solar system, galaxy, local galaxy cluster and so on, out to a distance of several billion light years. Not a typical map, certainly, but I love to study it, especially when a problem or challenge has me fretting about daily life. It always puts things in perspective.

Sent by Andy | 3:03 PM | 12-12-2007

Discussion of the topic reminds me of the film, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. "Two English cartographers visit the small South Wales village of Ffynnon Garw, to measure what is claimed to be the "first mountain inside of Wales". It's 1917, and the war in Europe continues. The villagers are very proud of their "mountain", and are understandably disappointed and furious to find that it is in fact a "hill". Not to be outwitted by a rule (and the Englishmen who enforce it), the villagers set out to make their hill into a mountain, but to do so they must keep the English from leaving, before the job is done. (Written by Rob Hartill)"
Thanks for your great show

Sent by jim Regan | 3:05 PM | 12-12-2007

As a child in Cuba in the early 1960's, at the height of the cold war, I remember the pride I felt when assigned by my wonderful teacher, Senorita Esmeralda, to draw 30 maps of Cuba for the whole class to use during a geography test. I lavished those pencil drawn maps with all the attention to detail my 9 year old hand & eye could command. I remember at the time that we were taught that the Yankis would like nothing more than to wipe Cuba off the earth. A year later, my parents and I left Cuba for a life of freedom and opportunity in the U.S., making a new life in, of all places, a tiny town in West Virginia. Again, I had a lovely teacher, very patient with a little girl learning a new language and a new culture. But imagine my feelings when she pulled down the map of the world to make a point and I saw that Cuba had disappeared from its usual place. In its place was the blue Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic ocean and nothing more! I had no words then to protest and don't remember even bringing it up with my parents. I think I was a little afraid of that empty space in the map and wondered what it meant. Later that year for a geography project I covered a balloon with paper mache and, carefully over the blue seas, drew the U.S. and Cuba, in as accurate relation to one another as I could, both in yellow paint, both stubbornly present to one another.

Sent by mary e cabrera | 3:18 PM | 12-12-2007

I too love maps. My first thought when Mr. Virga was introduced was about the power "in a good way" I find in maps. Standing in a strange city clutching a street map in my hand, I am empowered to take on this new place and try to wrap my head and heart around it. The structure for that wrap is the map, although it soon becomes "faced" by the buildings, the natural elements, the tastes, smells, conversations, smiles or frowns of the experience. (I find they are mostly smiles scattered around this world.)

I save my travel maps and when my daughter had to bring a collection of 100 somethings for the 100th day of school, we sorted and organized 100 maps. The child with the biggest "100" would win something. I assured her since her compact collection was as big as the world she should win,. The teacher didn't quite see it this way, but that was ok.

Sent by Miriam Feder | 3:29 PM | 12-12-2007

I remember the delight with which I first saw Buckminster Fuller's image of the earth as a series of equilateral triangles which, when fitted together, formed an angular globe. It was the first time I could believe that the shortest distance between New York and London was by way of Greenland.

Sent by Abigail Root | 3:45 PM | 12-12-2007

As a senior-citizen college student carrying a double major in Spanish and History, I found new insights in your presentation on "Talk of the Nation" today concerning the deeper meanings in maps. Studying early Spanish colonial Florida, I have seen the maps of the era, but your comments prompt me to view these maps in a new way. I'm fortunate to live near Jacksonville, Florida, where the main public library has the Ansbacher map collection, for sources. Thank you for a thought-provoking presentation. I look forward to reading your book.

Sent by Karen Rhodes | 3:52 PM | 12-12-2007

This was a great program. I've always loved maps, maybe because my parents put map wallpaper in my bedroom as a kid. It's why I'm now running an online mapping site that helps people learn about their neighborhood, .

If you liked this show and book, you would also enjoy You Are Here edited by Katherine Karmon, which got me started on Metro Mapper, and The Map Book.

Sent by Metro Mapper | 5:35 PM | 12-12-2007

I grew up with maps, laying on my stomach and tracing vacation routes with my father. Years later as an adult, I was in Bali and wandering through a community, talking with students. I peaked into a school room and saw a map on the wall. What came next was an "ah ha!" moment, when I realized the map was based on the religious beliefs of the people. The most important and respected points of the map were at the top of the page, with lesser and lesser importance given to objects or places. The same pattern of arrangement is used in home design, city planning, etc. Sewer systems were at the very bottom, needless to say.

Sent by Greg Purves | 8:36 PM | 12-12-2007

Given his wide exposure to maps, I was surprised to hear Virga make the preposterous claim that India is larger than Europe. In fact, Europe is around 3.9 million square miles, while the entire Indian subcontinent is only around 1.7 million square miles, less than half the size.

Sent by Jonathan, Tucson AZ | 9:06 PM | 12-12-2007

It is certainly true that Europe is larger than India, if one divides Europe and Asia along the Urals. I guess what he meant was Western Europe, separated along a line from the Bosporus up through Murmansk, that one might say most resembled a peninsula. I think that this would still be larger than India, though.

Sent by Richard | 10:34 PM | 12-12-2007

I was fortunate to work as a designer and production manager for a company that makes beautiful, modern maps of major cities of the world. One of the major problems the company's founder solved was the age-old folding/refolding scenario of most modern travel maps. However, even more impressive is the way the *design* and typographical details have been used to a great advantage towards legibility. Making a great map isn't so much as what you put on, but knowing what to leave off. Clarity through design and typography, in modern travels maps is the enormous competitive advantage of this series. No other company has yet to create a modern map using astute design principles. When I began working there I asked why? The answer was simply, "Cartographers are not designers, and designers are not cartographers. I am both."

Sent by Jeffrey Rutzky | 4:00 PM | 12-13-2007

I met a cartographer once, and he had never heard of the four color theorem in mathematics (topology). It states that given any plane separated into regions, such as a political map of the states of a country, the regions may be colored using no more than four colors in such a way that no two adjacent regions receive the same color. Two regions are called adjacent only if they share a border segment, not just a point.

Not only had he not heard of it, I couldn't explain it to him in a way that made sense to him. I thought it was odd that a cartogrpaher had never heard of this theorem! :)

By the way, the four color theorem was recently proved, and there is a pretty good explanation for lay people in Robin Wilson's Four Colors Suffice.

Sent by Andy Klee | 11:34 AM | 12-16-2007