“Maps of the imagination” – a great book to be guided by.

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One of the benefits of having the messiest desk in a shared office (by quite a mile) is the easy rediscovery of a great book that resurfaces as the rest of the much duller paper clears.

This week ‘Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer‘ by Peter Turchi reappeared, to point the direction for thoughts to come – a true ‘compass’ book. This books draws fascinating parallels between the act of map making and the act of writing, discussing all those fantastic maps that bridge the surface area of the novel and the ‘flatland’ of a place. It’s beautifully written. Turchi says on the first page -‘To ask for a map is to say, “Tell me a story” and the rest of the work flows as effortlessly. Visually the book is beautiful too, full of illustrations.

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One of the best chapters is the wonderfully titled ‘A wide landscape of snows’ that discusses the importance of blanks in relation to silences…from the fragments of Sappho’s poetry and Henry Beck’s 1933 underground map (successful due mostly to what it leaves out) to John Cage’s famous composition of silence. The book is full of quotes  – Lewis Carroll, Herman Melville and Louise Gluck – and Turchi himself is worthy of many a quote…

“The blank page is only a beginning, as opposed to the beginning. Even after we mark the page, there are blanks beyond the borders of what we create, and blanks within what we create.”

Silence is a vital part of the novel too and Turchi quotes Hemingway in a wonderful line – “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows”. Turchi acknowledges the risks of communicating through silence, the challenge that the reader faces trying to make ‘associative leaps’. However “the rewards” he says “include the powerful bolt of understanding a leap can make, an understanding that reaches the reader beyond words, beyond rational explanation, and so is more intensely felt”

It’s refreshing to find a very non-academic ‘academic book’, one that twists and turns full of energy and ideas in a way that reminds me of Ernst Gombrich at his best. Like Gombrich, Turchi offers new and accessible analysis and connections, free from the turgidity of academic writing or the need to ‘prove’. If you have an interest in both maps and literature you’ll be hard pressed to find a better book to set your head spinning…

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