How to Read a Map

Man in the Mirror

Michael Jackson


How to Read a Map


14th Century map of the Mediterranean

Nautical Chart in Portolan Style Probably Drawn in Genoa



There was an article recently in The Boston Globe, “Introducing Ray Bradbury, the Master of Fantasy,” that talks about introducing our kids to the books that were meaningful to us when we were children and reading the books that are important to our kids so that we can build a common heritage. Alice Hoffman, the author of the article, refers to these stories as road maps to our lives. The books become important not only for the stories they tell but for the ways in which they shape our lives and our imaginations and contribute to our growth as individuals. When we re-read these books we not only recapture the stories but those moments in our lives and personal growth when we first discovered the stories. By sharing these stories with our children, and in letting them share their stories with us, we help them to begin to chart the maps of their lives.

Alan Jacobs in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction recalls being on a ferryboat and watching a father read one of the Harry Potter books to his child. Both the father and child were engrossed in the story and were creating the kind of moment that Hoffman talks about in her article. The moment Jacobs describes is a landmark in both the parent and child’s life together. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness they would stack up stones to mark places where significant events took place. When their children asked them why those stones were there, their parents would retell the story the markers were built to commemorate. The stories we read are often stacks of stones, Cairns, of this kind. It is important to have these landmarks in our lives to which we can return when the need arises and which we can share with those that come after us.

Stories change us. The reading we do changes us, if we read well, even if we do not necessarily choose well the stories that we read. The song, Man in the Mirror, is about change beginning with us, if we are to change the world we need to change ourselves. The books we read can contribute to this change and as we age these books become maps of our development. I think maps are interesting things, even if we cannot figure them out. The drawing at the top of the page is of a map, a map I cannot easily read, of the Mediterranean Sea as it looked to a 14th century cartographer. Maps also say something about how we view the world. There is a scene in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I where the king and the governess of his children are looking at a map of Siam, or present day Thailand. Siam is the largest country on the map. This is not literally true of course, but for the king of Siam it was “psychologically” true, it was the center of his world and the most important place in his world and in that sense the largest country on his map.

And this is not a problem unique to the king of Siam. If we look at maps made throughout history, up to and including our own day, it is not unusual to find similar problems of scale and size, though with most of the planet having now been photographed from space, these geographic distortions are becoming less common. But what is the real truth, the psychological one or the physical one; is the size of a place determined by a scale of miles or by the scale of the places influence in an individual’s life? The smallest town on the planet plays a huge role in the lives of the people that live there.


Map of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea Countries

Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 – upside-down with north oriented up

Mohammad Al-Idrisi


The maps above and below are also very old though a bit easier to follow. The map above, we are told, is upside down, with the north at the top. Of course for us that makes the map right side up. But for the artist that rendered the map, south was at the top. Mohammad Al-Idrisi obviously looked at the world differently than we do. Did drawing the world differently change the way he looked at it; does someone who sees the South Pole at the top of the map view the world differently than someone who sees the North Pole at the top? The artist who drew the map of Africa below saw Africa as “beneath” his European home because he placed the northern hemisphere at the top of his map. For Al-Idrisi, on the other hand, the Middle East, Al-Idrisi’s part of the world, would be at the top of the map and Europe would be “beneath” him.


Nautical map of West Africa

West Africa in a nautical chart

Fernão Vaz Douradoão_Vaz_Dourado_1571-1.jpg


Of course this begs the question of whether or not people see nations that are beneath them geographically as being beneath them in other ways as well. Does seeing the south on top of the map effect the stories that person reads or tells? Probably what touches us each as human beings is not greatly affected by which of the poles we place at the top of the map. But sometimes the way we organize the world, who is put on top and who on the bottom, suggests something about how we view the world and the people in it. Viewed from the cosmos up and down on our planet are very relative terms. But to us they are often loaded with significance.


Map of the solar system

Map of the Solar System

Anonymous (compiled from multiple images from the public domain, published by the Free Software Foundation)


But of course the kind of map Ms. Hoffman had in mind when she compared our reading to the making of maps are not the kinds of maps drawn by Al-Idrisi or Fernão Vaz Dourado. Her maps are more metaphorical, referring to the course of our development, to the steps in the journey that made us who we are. Stories often open us up to new ways of viewing the world, of viewing others, of viewing ourselves. We look at the actions of some characters and, though we may wish this were not so, we cannot see ourselves behaving in the same ways. We do not see in ourselves the courage, the honesty, or the selflessness we see in the characters in stories that we admire. Still we often try to emulate them to become more like them.

There were two articles in The Guardian recently about stories and their influence. One was about empathy, “Reading fiction ‘improves empathy’, study finds.” This article suggests that reading stories (and the article is clear about this, it asserts that non-fiction does not produce the same effect) develops the ability to empathize; stories help us to get out of ourselves and experience life a little bit from the point of view of the characters in the stories. The article is very short and leaves many questions unresolved but it does raise an interesting point. Faye Weldon in her book Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen says, “You can practice the art of empathy very well on Pride and Prejudice, and on all the works of Jane Austen, and it is this daily practice that we all need, or we will never be good at living, as without practice we will never be good at playing the piano” For Weldon one of the reasons we read is so that we can become more effective empathizers. She also suggests the art of empathy is an essential part of good living. Again, this is an assertion that lacks evidence, but my experience as a teacher and as a reader reinforces for me the truth of this assertion. Until we care about the characters in the stories we read, especially in those stories where plot is of secondary importance, it is very difficult to be engaged by those stories, they will never capture us, worse than that, they are likely to become tedious and to bore us.

The second article was about a poll that asked readers to identify their favorite character from the Harry Potter stories, “Snape is voted favourite Harry Potter character”. The favorite of those taking the poll was Severus Snape. Snape is probably the most complicated, and I think the most human, of the characters in these stories. No matter what readers may have suspected to be the truth about Snape as the story unfolded, it was not until the end that we knew for sure whether he was one of the good guys or the bad guys. He is a character with many faults and many flaws, just like most of us. He is unlike either Potter or Dumbledore on the one hand and clearly good; or like Lord Voldemort or Bellatrix Lestrange on the other and clearly evil. He is either a basically good guy with serious flaws or a very bad guy with a few redeeming qualities. Most of us can identify with the problem of Snape.

Whatever we think of Snape, by about half way through the story we understand that Snape’s darker side is in part the product of how he was treated by characters we see as “good guys,” people like Harry’s father and Harry’s godfather Sirius Black. We also see that his redeeming qualities come from how other “good” people, like Harry’s mother and Dumbledore, have treated him. Snape is responsible for the person he becomes, for both what is good in him and what is not so good, but we understand his struggle. We want to be good and seen as good but if we are honest with ourselves we see our flaws and shortcomings and are aware of the distance between what we are and what we ought and, hopefully, want to be. I also think there is a deeper truth here and that is that often those we do not like or trust, like Snape, are actually acting on our behalf, while those we like and trust, like Professor Quirrell, perhaps, are acting to do us harm.


Marco Tempest The Magic of Truth and Lies

TED Talk


The video clips above and below suggest art’s dual nature. Does art lie to us or does it open our eyes to the truth. In the first clip we see that magic to be successful must succeed in lying to its audience and it helps if the audience, in turn, comes to the performance with a wish to be deceived (for we all know when we attend a magic show that nothing that we are seeing is happening as we are seeing it happen). In this sense art is a magic show. When we look at a painting we often see a two dimensional space appear to take on a third dimension. We know the surface is flat but the artist is able to suggest depth where there is none. Words on a page produce emotions and sensations in a reader that were not there before and the reader has not actually experienced what has elicited those emotions and sensations, she or he has been tricked into imagining those experiences, as the member from the audience who selected the three of clubs imagines that card was selected freely and at random. For art to function we cede control of our thoughts and imaginations, or at least a degree of control, to the artist. We may call this verisimilitude or the suspension of disbelief, but it amounts to much the same thing, we are allowing the artist to deceive us.


Raghava KK Shake Up Your Story

TED Talk


On the other hand, though, the second video also makes a valid point, that stories often reveal truth and reality to us. If we see the world one way, it is useful to “shake our stories” a bit so that we can gain some insight into how others see our world. Richard Rodriguez in an interview with Bill Moyers said that when he read William Saroyan for the first time he, Richard Rodriguez, discovered he was Armenian (Saroyan was Armenian and his stories often captured the experiences of Armenians in America). In allowing himself into Saroyan’s world Rodriguez recognized what it meant to be an Armenian and how aspects of being Armenian were not that different from aspects of being Mexican, that Armenians and Mexicans have a shared humanity. It is this ability of a book read well to bring us out of ourselves that Rodriguez valued. Is Rodriguez deceived in this view, is he only imagining what an author wants him to imagine, that we all share a common humanity? Or is it a “noble lie” that deceives us so that it can reveal to us a greater truth? Perhaps life is a briar patch of truth and deceit, of wisdom and foolishness and that these qualities are so comingled that we need to learn to negotiate the tension that this comingling produces.

The maps we make may be real maps to real places. They may be maps that guide us safely through a dangerous terrain. The stories that we read may take place in real or imagined worlds but the ones that become a part of us have helped us in some way, they have illuminated what was unclear to us, provided models of correct or incorrect behavior, or led us to places of safety within our psyche and our spirit. They me be like the map below, a map of Middle Earth in a language we cannot understand but a map of a terrain that is so familiar to us we do not need to understand the map’s language, we know nonetheless where we are and where we are going. We can find on this map both where the dragons live and the way home again.


Map of Tolkien's Middle Earth with runes and a Swedish text

Map from The Hobbit (Swedish)