Thursday, August 21, 2014

On The Consequences Of A One To One Scale Map

 My Book Shelf # 30

I have just started reading A History Of The World In Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton, an exploration of influential maps through our history that shaped the way we viewed the world and in turn how our cultural habits, religious beliefs and political power equations of the day shaped decisions of how and what to represent. Each period in our history argues Jerry Brotton gets the map it deserves. It promises to be a really interesting read.

Early in the introduction I came across this passage on the use of scale:

The only map that can ever completely represent the territory it depicts would be on the effectively redundant scale of  1:1. Indeed, the selection of scale, a proportional method of determining a consistent  relationship between the  size of the map and the  space it  represents is closely related  to the problem of abstraction, and has been  a rich source of pleasure  and  comedy for many writers. In Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), the other worldly character Mein Herr announces that 'we actually made a map of the country, on a scale of  a mile to the mile!' When asked if the map has  been used much,  Mein Herr admits, 'It has never been spread out'. and 'the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole  country,  and shut out the  sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does  nearly as well.' The conceit was taken a stage further by Jorge Luis Borges,  who, in his one-paragraph short story 'On Rigour in Science' (1946), recast Caroll's account  in a darker key. Borges describes a mythical empire where the art of mapmaking  had reached such a level of detail that 

the Colleges of Cartographers set up a Map of the Empire which had the size of the Empire itself and coincided with it point by point. Less Addicted to the  Study of Cartography, Succeeding Generations understood that this widespread Map was useless and with Impiety they abandoned it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and of the Winters. In the deserts of the west some mangled Ruins of the Map lasted on, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole Country there are no other relics of the Disciplines of Geography.

Borges understood both the timeless quandary and potential hubris of the mapmaker: in an attempt to produce a comprehensive map of their world, a process of reduction and selection must take place. 

Wonderful passage! (but i wonder not having  read the story -if the map was as large as the empire, where did they keep it? :) )  If you want a shorter summary of the book do listen to Jerry Brotton on BBC Pop-Up Ideas podcast -  Mapping History. It is an enjoyable talk.

Now,  back to reading!

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