So THAT's where Narnia is

There's a nifty, gimmicky upside to Google's mass digitalization of books, whether one finds that prospect ominous (Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge) or not. Google Book Search will permit readers to map out locations mentioned in a particular volume. While reading a book, you just activate this feature and you get an interactive Google Map with the little pushpins stuck in it and all the addresses listed, plus relevant lines from the text in question. It's a way, software engineer David Petrou says, to "activate the static information" in a book.

Or hey, maybe publishers could just start coming out with, you know, maps printed in the front of books. All of the Alan Furst thrillers I've been reading lately have maps of Hungary and Roumania. An idea like that could catch on.

Or maybe not. Go to the jump to read my column about the need for maps in books.

Nonfiction works of late have left me feeling a bit lost
by Jerome Weeks
July 9, 2006

Feeling disoriented? Maybe it's the nonfiction you're reading.

Increasingly, many books don't have a map to help a reader determine where he is and where the story is headed. Or the maps they have aren't big enough or even just well-designed. Several times, I've had to read a book with an atlas at hand, flipping back and forth between the two volumes.

A niggling compaint? Well, yes, perhaps it's just me. My father was an artillery officer, so maps fascinated him, an interest he passed along. Topographical maps, trianguluation, ocean charts: My siblings and I were taught to read maps just as we were taught to read books.

"When I'm completely exhausted, practically dead but still breathing," Dr. Astrov says about his maps in Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, "I'll drop everything, run over here and have a little fun for an hour."

My father, exactly.

Consulting maps is a reflex, then. And once upon a teenage time, Jules Verne made geography thrilling, and not just for me. How many young readers found the globe a fascinating place to explore with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Around the World in 80 Days?

So nowadays, when a book zips to Taung Kadat in Myanmar without much context, it's irksome. We're required to go to a computer or dig out a globe because the publisher wouldn't provide a map?

Which is, of course, the real matter here: the stinginess of publishers. They would have to pay Rand-McNally for the right to reprint a map or hire a cartographer to draft a new one. And then there's the extra cost of printing it.

Thus, when a color map is clearly what's called for, readers find a smudgy, black-and-white one. When two maps are needed, we get only one. And if we get both, they're crudely done. For all of their education, it often seems that book editors haven't read Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information for how to lay out data in a 2-D format. Military histories and adventure sagas, especially, cry out for clear maps. What we often get is either a few dashes or what looks like a Parcheesi board done up in plaid.

Here is a partial list of recent books I've read and enjoyed that could have benefited from more maps, better maps or just any map: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss; James L. Haley's Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas; Brutal Journey: The
Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America
by Paul Schneider (with all of two maps, yet one is hard to read and the other is distinctly unhelpful), plus half a dozen books on the Iraq War, even such a fine one as George Packer's The Assassin's Gate.

For the latter books, publishers should be ashamed. A novel such as Irene Nemirovsky's recently translated Suite Francaise, her splendid, Tolstoyan story cycle about French refugees, has a map. Meanwhile, nonfiction studies of the Middle East or terrorism have no maps or only squint-inducing squiggles like the ones in Generation Kill.

Twice recently, the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study has found that a majority of Americans, 18 to 24, couldn't locate the door to their bedrooms without flares, a cellphone and roadside assistance.

We Americans, old and young, are notorious for not knowing much about the rest of the planet. American TV news programs flit past foreign reports. Flights to Mars get more air time. But 9/11 supposedly changed all that. And after five years of war coverage, 88 percent of the young people surveyed could not locate Afghanistan on a map. Seventy-five percent didn't know where Israel is. This must mean that the all-powerful Jewish cabal that purportedly runs our media has fallen down on the job.

Or perhaps that's their evil plan. Keep us ignorant -- unaware that Israel is really Florida, that Iraq and Iran are actually the same country and that Myanmar is a resort in Mexico.

In which case, hey, congratulations to all. The plan is working. And publishers have certainly helped.

copyright, The Dallas Morning News

January 29, 2007 8:40 AM | | Comments (2)



I see ... you want better topography of a fantasyland. And you wish it to be reflected in the eventual film version.

Have you taken the Pirates of the Caribbean ride lately?

The lame map in Tolkien's Rings was decorative and totally useless. The distances and topography were completely lost to me. It was probably better than most but I never once consulted it while reading about Frodo or watching Jackson's trilogy on it.


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Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



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