Books: You Are Here

Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, Edited by Katharine Harmon, Princeton Architectural Press, 2004 

Books: You Are Here

At secondary school our geography teacher introduced map-reading by giving us an OS map of Edinburgh, and asking us to work out the best approach for an army attacking the city. Maps are practical things, but invitations to new possibilities too. This anthology maps many real places, but also the body, the realms of religion and love, and purely imaginary places. The ‘real-place’ maps use indicators as diverse as postcodes, apple varieties and sites of pollution. Their scale ranges from the whole globe to a single neighbourhood. Sometimes the simplest ideas lead to the most startling images, for example the ‘What’s Up? South!’ world map with the Antarctic placed at the top and the Arctic at the bottom. In this context it’s striking how 19th century moral maps present Heaven as north and Hell south—striking also, that we’re invited to scan up the page, against our normal direction of reading. Contrastingly, a plan from a 19th century edition of A Pilgrim’s Progress leads spirally to the ‘Celestial City’ at the centre of the page. All kinds of questions emerge: map as route or landscape, what is centre and what edge? A number of contemporary artists are represented. I preferred work rooted in the world, such as Langland and Bell’s ‘Air Routes of Britain’, which creates a new but recognisable map of the UK through tracing flight patterns within Britain, day and night. Joyce Kozloff’s abstract work is less satisfying: purely as image it’s difficult to read, and the accompanying cataloguejargon text offers no pointers. Some maps are frustratingly unreadable, the text being too small or too blurred, and while it’s useful in one sense to have a sight of the whole image, a deliberately chosen detail might have been more rewarding.

There’s much humour, including The Guardian’s April fool map of ‘San Seriffe’, with each place name having some typographical reference. Overall it’s a pleasurable read, crammed so full that it fails to abide by a proviso in its closing text, taken from Roald Dahl’s The BFG: ’They always put two blank pages at the back of the atlas. They’re for new countries. You’re meant to fill them in yourself.’ This book certainly conforms to the spirit, if not the letter, of this.

Ken Cockburn is a director of platform projects, successor to the award-winning pocketbooks. He is also a writer, translator and editor