Several years ago, I had the opportunity to give United States Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni a ride from a bookstore in Pasadena to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills, up a tangle of narrow streets. This was before the ubiquity of Waze or Google Maps, before I had a car with GPS. To get the general to his dinner, I consulted a map: an old Thomas Bros. Guide I kept in the glove box, to be exact. When we arrived, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “You’re like me. A map-and-compass man.” Such a person, he explained, understood how to read the land and navigate it. A map-and-compass man thought for himself—or for herself, depending.
Reading a map is an act of imagination and cognition, a way of orienting ourselves in space and making sense of the world. It is the opposite of mindlessly following the commands of a satellite-based robot.
People have charted geographic formations since the sixth or seventh centuries BCE, when Babylonians put the Euphrates River at the center of the universe. The ancient Greeks made geography a science, and around 150 CE, Ptolemy wrote a treatise called Geographia, which was one of the first how-to books and taught a scientific method for making maps.
As explorers charted the world and scientific measurements became more sophisticated, mapmakers got weirder, taking artistic license and making design decisions that led to unusual works of art. This explosion of curious cartography is captured in Jean-Christophe Bailly, Jean-Marc Besse, Philippe Grand, and Gilles Palsky’s beautiful and fascinating An Atlas of Geographical Wonders: From Mountaintops to Riverbeds, which features maps from the David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford University.
By the 1800s, the printing industry had established a market for popular geography, so when scholars began creating comparative tableaux, these maps proliferated. They were fanciful, often whimsical, juxtaposing images of mountains, lakes, and rivers in a schematic chart more like something out of a Wes Anderson movie than anything a map-and-compass man might use.
Among the first to make such maps was Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whose early sketches from the Andes detailed both the mountains and the flora growing there. The names of the plants are written into the maps at the approximate altitude where he found them and look like word clouds splattered across the landscape. Later tableaux by commercial cartographers such as Constant Desjardins look more like business graphs, lining up the mountains of the world and charting their various heights. Others, such as the work of James Reynolds and John Emslie, are more naturalistic and beautiful, featuring exploding volcanoes and snowy peaks.
In one image from An Atlas of Geographical Wonders (perhaps inspired by Dorothy Parker’s joke about young women attending prom at Yale), the rivers of the world are laid end to end.
My favorite image in the book is one from 1834 called “A Map of the Principal Rivers Shewing Their Courses, Countries, and Comparative Lengths,” compiled by the excellently named Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It depicts the rivers of the world surrounding a circle at the center like a big blue and yellow eye. It’s a fantasy, a trippy way of organizing the world’s rivers without geographic context—the Nile runs alongside the Rhine, Italy’s Po next to the Amazon—and yet, as the text makes clear, “the geographic orientation of the rivers’ mouths has been respected: those rivers that flow westward are located on the right, those that flow south sit at the top of the page, etc.”
An Atlas of Geographical Wonders offers a unique look at a period when people used maps to learn, to daydream, to imagine the immensity of the world. As Bailly writes in the introduction, “this is the real ethos of these images: to inspire in us, as we sit beneath the light of our lamps in that intimate space of reading and dreaming, an infinity of expression and a winding trail of freely drifting thoughts.”
Richard White’s California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History offers another kind of imagined landscape. White looks at California through photographs taken by his son, Jesse Amble White. Using archives, maps, and clues, he brings the images to life by connecting them to the past. “I put photographs at the center,” he explains, “because I am pursuing a particular way of looking and seeing. I want to see the past in the present.”
White is endeavoring to understand a land that rattles, slides, and burns, and the result is a freewheeling travelogue. He searches for a brass plate Sir Francis Drake might have nailed to a post near Point Reyes, recalls Charles Lummis and the California missions, looks at the “indiscriminate and inhuman massacre” of indigenous Californians, reconstructs the story of Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, and ends up at the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles.
Like the mapmakers in An Atlas of Geographical Wonders, White isn’t so much charting the terrain as reimagining it. Ignoring the GPS system telling him to take the 405, he pulls out his map and compass and unpacks the myths, creating an idiosyncratic vision of the state. As he writes, “I am looking for the origin of California, the imagined moment when nineteenth-century Americans believed California began and its destiny spun out like a road before it.”
Mark Haskell Smith is the author of six novels, most recently Blown, and the nonfiction books Naked at Lunch and Heart of Dankness.
• By Jean-Christophe Bailly, Jean-Marc Besse, Philippe Grand, and Gilles Palsky
• Princeton Architectural Press, 208 pages, $50
• By Richard White
• Photographs by Jesse Amble White
• W.W. Norton & Company, 352 pages, $45