Tuning Up - Winter 2023

The Book of Maps

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By Bonnie Friedman | December 1, 2022
Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

Four years ago, I bought myself a paperback atlas—a floppy, glossy, 200-page edition quite unlike the hardback tome that had gathered dust on my shelf for decades. And this flimsy new atlas soon altered my grasp of reality in a way so elemental that I realized I’d obtained an essential tool of knowledge and power, all for a modest $14.95. For when I found it in my local bookshop, I vowed from that day on to look up every place I encountered in my reading, no matter what.

Previously, while reading, I would hear a voice in my head saying, Don’t get up. Stay on the page. You don’t really need to know where Ulan Bator or Burma or Lyme Regis is. You’ll lose the pleasure of the story … don’t go! That voice had sharply circumscribed my life, like the tiny pencil in my childhood compass, creating a neat, small world beyond which things at any distance became somewhat imaginary. Now I made good friends with that voice—and learned to ignore it. I doggedly forced myself to look up all the places I came across, as well as places I’d previously never bothered to check. El Salvador. Taganrog. The China Sea. The Chesapeake Bay. Ypres. Ohio. St. Petersburg. Palau. Kathmandu. Even when my eyes ached, I turned to my new atlas and squinted at the minuscule print in the dizzying key, then flipped to the specified page and scanned for the point on the grid where the lines would intersect. Then came the pang of shock as the inchoate snapped into proportion and actuality. Many things immediately made greater sense. Oh, Liverpool is on the coast! And on the River Mersey! (I knew both these things without knowing them.) It’s right across the Irish Sea from Dublin—no wonder it has vast shipyards and Paul McCartney has Irish charm!

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