ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
"Follow This Thread" is an instruction and a title. Henry Eliot's latest book is about mazes and labyrinths. And like a maze, it takes several twists and turns through history, philosophy, myth and pop culture. Henry Eliot told me since he was a kid in England, anytime he has come across a maze. He's felt an urge to get inside of it.
HENRY ELIOT: The thing which really made me fascinated with them is I noticed that although I was intrigued to get inside, once I was in the maze, I found them pretty unpleasant actually. I didn't like the feeling of being lost and disorientated. And it struck me as a strange paradox that we're both drawn into them and repelled from them...
ELIOT: ...And that we're building more and more of them all the time. And yet in the rest of our lives, we try not to get lost. And I think that's why I became particularly interested in them - trying to work out why we have these things.
SHAPIRO: And this book explores that question through the lens of myth and psychology and history. And there are no easy answers, but what's the best answer you've come up with? Why do people want to enter a maze even as they fear getting lost?
ELIOT: When you enter a maze, you're living out a kind of ancient metaphor for the challenge of life really. You're entering - especially a maze which has choices and has dead ends. It feels very much like a kind of allegory for life. And you find your way through it, and you try to do the best job you can.
And the center of the maze, which is the goal of the puzzle - it's the goal of the challenge - is the ultimate dead end. It's the place you get to where there's nowhere else to go. It's where you stop. And there's a way in which that maps onto death, I think. Obviously when you die, there's no coming back. But in a maze, you're offered a chance of redemption. You're allowed to turn around and emerge from the maze having learned from the experience that you've been through.
SHAPIRO: This is such a universal experience. You describe ancient mazes from nearly every continent. How is it possible that when there was little to no contact amongst these cultures, they all independently came to the idea of a maze?
ELIOT: I know. It's one of the real mysteries. We just don't know. It's so extraordinary. The oldest maze that we think we can date is a petroglyph from the island of Sardinia. It's carved into the limestone rock in this cave system known as a fairy cave. And we think that's about 5,000 years old. But exactly as you say, it also appears in Southeast Asia, in Africa, in other parts of Europe. And there isn't really an easy explanation.
It's possible that it was discovered simultaneously by different cultures, and all - actually lots of bits inside the body look quite mazelike. So when you cut open the stomach and look at the guts, that looks quite like a maze system. And the brain looks quite mazelike. And so maybe these kind of natural occurrences of mazy designs meant that it kind of appeared simultaneously around the world.
SHAPIRO: Or I suppose the programmers who put us all into this massive simulation could have just put it into our brains.
ELIOT: Well, quite.
SHAPIRO: I have to ask you about the design of this book because you don't just read it. You really experience it. To get through the book, you have to follow the text that wraps around, and you turn the book upside down and backwards. There is also a red thread that runs...
SHAPIRO: ...Through the book with single-line illustrations and mazes. At what point in the writing process did you realize that the book itself would be a maze?
ELIOT: Quite early on. I really liked that idea of the book itself being like a maze. And that's partly because there are so many examples of mazes inside books. You know, there's that wonderful library maze in "The Name Of The Rose" or the maze the center of Stephen King's "Shining" and so on. And then quite early on, we had this idea to rotate the text so that you had to kind of turn the book to find a way through it, and the turns and the text exactly match the turns that one would have to make if you were walking through the classical seven-path labyrinth.
SHAPIRO: I think particularly in the present day when we have a device in our pocket that can give us all the information in the world, including detailed maps at any given moment, there might be an anxiety or fear about getting lost in many people's minds. Do you have any suggestions or insight for those people who can't break through and find the freedom in being lost?
ELIOT: Yeah. It feels like a very modern phenomenon, doesn't it? I mean, I certainly feel it. If my phone runs out of battery, especially in a foreign city, I feel completely marooned. And it's a kind of self-reliance that we're losing by having these devices in our pocket. I mean, I would really recommend the experience of being genuinely lost. And I think a maze is quite a good place to have that feeling because you know that you're getting lost within a safe space, as it were. You know there are perimeters to this space. And maybe this is a function for mazes in the future - that it's a safe place to have that feeling of being lost.
SHAPIRO: Henry Eliot, thank you so much.
ELIOT: Ari, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
SHAPIRO: His new book, which is also a maze of sorts, is called "Follow This Thread: A Maze Book To Get Lost In."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.