Book Review: Maps of the Imagination

by Izaak

For generic winter gift giving holiday this year, I received a book called Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, by Peter Turchi.

It’s a pretty interesting book, and it plays on one of my favorite areas; cartography.

I love cartography. Its one of the areas that I have developed a huge fascination in ever since choosing the Robinson projection as my favorite map projection in 5th grade. (Yeah, I like compromise projections. So what?)

This book connects a lot of ideas in cartography with ideas in writing. That is, it talks about an important idea or principle in cartography, and then connects it via analogy, along with excerpts from various famous books, to important ideas and principles in writing.

A good example of this might be, for example, when Turchi mentions a concept that historians of cartography should be familiar with; the tale of Harry Beck. Harry Beck existed at a time when maps of subway systems had accurate distances between stops. That meant that all the downtown stops were extremely close together and the stops would get further and further apart with a lot of wasted space away from the center of towns, like so:

Harry realized that you don’t actually need to have this map be geographically accurate; it was a more useful map if you eliminated that restriction, and instead displayed the information like this:

If you look closely at these maps, maybe open them in new tabs, you can see that the critical information is preserved; where the lines cross each other, which places the lines go, and how to get from one place to another. But the information is a lot better presented.

And in this book, Turchi makes the analogy to writing – only include what the reader needs! If including extra information bogs down the story and makes the story less readable or understandable, then it does not need to be shown.

The book is filled with other incredible advice such as this, and many more complex analogies. If you are a fan of maps, you will learn a lot of interesting facts from this book, and maybe learn how to write. If you want to learn how to write, this books provides a very new perspective from any other help book you’ll find out there.

But in a way, the most valuable parts of the book were the snippets from and commentary on other books, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Nabokov’s Lolita.

One highlight from the snippets is when he presents the different styles of translations of Sappho’s poems. Sappho’s poems are mostly lost, though her reputation is well notated by the literary critics of the time. However, fragments and scraps remain, and thus the difficulty is in translating these scraps into english – does one retain the gaping holes? does one attempt to close the gaps?

I often found myself reading through the nonfiction quickly in order to find the next gold nugget of prose. Not to say the nonfiction was unimportant or uninteresting. It was merely less interesting than the best excerpts from the best books that humankind has ever made – I could hardly do better. And I would force myself to go back and read through what I had skipped.

But the author of this book does have a skill for picking out amazing quotes from other stories and commenting on them in a way that makes you feel like you’re understanding a 336 page novel after reading a paragraph and an exchange of dialogue. And I feel like I have picked up a couple new writing techniques along the way.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in maps, literary analysis, or writing.

P.S. There is one factual error in the book – players of video games are not majorly male, in almost any way you define “video games”.