Above: a page of map symbols of topography from a world atlas. Below: Saul Steinberg’s “Country Noises.”
And in today’s mail: Brian Dillon’s latest, Affinities.
“The world keeps showing me these pictures.”
Filed under: convergences
Above: a page of map symbols of topography from a world atlas. Below: Saul Steinberg’s “Country Noises.”
And in today’s mail: Brian Dillon’s latest, Affinities.
“The world keeps showing me these pictures.”
Filed under: convergences
The poet Charles Simic died. Here is the author portrait on the back of his book, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks, drawn by Saul Steinberg in 1993.
Simic said walking around New York with Steinberg was as delightful as looking at one of his drawings. They became friends towards the end of Steinberg’s life. (Steinberg died in 1999.)
Simic wrote at least 3 pieces about his friend, all of which shed good light on both the subject and the author: in 2005, a brief review of Steinberg at The New Yorker; in 2006, his introduction for Saul Steinberg: Illuminations, the catalog for a wonderful show I saw on my honeymoon; and in 2012, a long review of Deidre Bair’s biography, “The Loves of Saul Steinberg.”
I get the sense that when Simic wrote about Steinberg he was also writing about himself. (I mean, when isn’t this true? But still.) Simic and Steinberg were both post-war immigrants — from Belgrade and Bucharest, respectively — who came from cultures where west and east collided and the old world clashed with the new.
“Saul said that the reason we understood each other perfectly was that we were both reared in what he called ‘the Turkish delight manner.’” Simic writes about his home in Belgrade, where “in every room, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires still fought their battles,” and how his native city was surrounded by countryside in which “one could literally take a pick in what century one wanted to spend one’s holidays.”
So they were both artists unstuck in time and place. In Simic’s obituary, Dwight Garner writes that his “work combined a melancholy old-world sensibility with a sensual and witty sense of modern life,” and Simic basically said the same of Steinberg:
He was between worlds, in more ways than one, which is not a bad place to be for someone who wants to elude being classified as this or that. With a lightness of touch that concealed his keen intellect, the depth and complexity of his ideas, he reminds us that the fantastic and the natural, the comic and the serious all belong together. Since most immigrants’ lives, as a matter of course, resemble the Theater of the Absurd, taking such contradictions in stride was perfectly understandable on his part. For many of us, the story of exile ended up being a philosophy of laughter.
Simic said “America appealed to Steinberg as a collage of styles,” which suited him because he already came from a place “so rich in contradictions.” Simic thought of Steinberg as a “comic philosopher,” whose work showed us that “only a comic sensibility can grasp the character of our country and our national myths.”
Simic also said if you couldn’t place Steinberg as an artist, “a look at the writings of Rabelais, Cervantes, Gogol, and Mark Twain may provide a better answer than a visit to an art museum.” (Steinberg himself called himself a “writer who draws,” and even made a piece called Library, which includes a wooden copy of Gogol’s Nose.)
Simic highlighted another thing that about Steinberg the Immigrant: how his displacement made him see the world with fresh eyes.
“He walked out of his front door with eyes wide open as if he had just arrived from a foreign country, rediscovering the street and the city where he lived for many years.”
Being an immigrant made one into a child again, Steinberg said. A child who talked funny and noticed things natives never did. Beauty in America came as a surprise; it seemed to be an accident, and was unlike any experience of beauty he’d had before.
Steinberg did what all great artists do: he made the familiar strange, gave you a new way to look at the everyday.
In his essay, “How To Write a Charles Simic Poem,” in Equipment for Living, the poet Michael Robbins says Simic did the same, “taking Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization (ostranenie) literally.”
Robbins then quotes the first lines of “Fork,” a poem he teaches his students “as an example of the work poetry must do”:
This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.
“Forget about self-expression, kid,” Robbins writes. “Learn to see the monster on the dinner table.”
I need to stop at some point, so I’ll end with a quote from the end of Simic’s Paris Review interview when he was asked about how his poetry reminds the reader of the pleasure of the ordinary:
Sausages sautéed with potatoes and onions! It’s also highly advisable to have a philosopher or two on hand. A few pages of Plato while working on a baked ham. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus over a bowl of spaghetti with littleneck clams. We think best when we bring opposites together, when we realize that all these realities, one inside the other, are somehow connected. That’s how the wonder and amazement that are so necessary to both poetry and philosophy come about. A “truth” detached and purified of pleasures of ordinary life is not worth a damn in my view. Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be first tested in the kitchen—and then in bed, of course.
Emphasis mine. RIP.
In Latin, the term “ex-voto”, is described as: a votive offering of thanks to a sacred entity for a miraculous act.
I first heard of ex-voto when researching the cartoonist Saul Steinberg’s bicycling habit. From the year 1992 in his chronology:
August, tells Aldo Buzzi that he fell off his bicycle but was not seriously hurt. “In my mind I see the disasters I avoided—teeth, bones, eyes—and I understand the concept of the Ex-Voto.” He makes an apotropaic drawing…
“Apotropaic” means “supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.”
Here’s that drawing:
Note the brand names on all of his gear. In another letter to Aldo Buzzi, he wrote about his cycling commute:
Early in the morning, then, I’m on the bicycle to Amagansett, all of it uphill, and for a little bit along the ocean, etc. The return trip, downhill, much quicker. I wear a plastic helmet due to the danger from local yokels in their trucks, who hate cyclists and drive too fast and too close.
Here’s another ex-voto drawing of him on his bicycle from 1992:
I’m not sure when Steinberg first became inspired by ex-votos. There were votive paintings in his native Italy, but he also made several trips to Mexico, first in the late 40s with Hedda Sterne, who was down there hanging out with the great Miguel Covarrubias and others. He first started making his own around 1983.
Not too long after I saw Steinberg’s drawings, I was at the library and came across this book of contemporary Mexican votive paintings by Alfredo Vilchis Roque and his three songs, made from the 30s to the present day. The book is divided up into sections based on subject matter: “Parenthood,” “Relationships,” “Emigration,” “Urban Violence,” “Illness,” etc. My favorites were the paintings thanking saints for not getting caught cheating:
You can see why a cartoonist might be inspired by this form of pictures and words. Your typical ex-voto has a scene of a “near miss” or a miracle, with a saint or religious figure looking over the scene, and words underneath giving thanks. This caption reads:
I give thanks to Lord Jesus of Chalma that Joaquin was able to get away before my husband came in, avoiding a disaster. I offer Him this retablo, begging His forgiveness. I swear in remorse never to cheat [again], because my husband loves me and doesn’t deserve it. I will always be faithful to him till death do us part. I let myself get carried away by [Joaquín’s] youth and smooth talk, but this has made me appreciate my husband, as a man and a human being. Rosa H. J. This took place in Col. Condesa, Mexico D.F. February 14, 1990.
In the book Alfredo Vilchis Roque cites Frida Kahlo as one of his biggest influences, which makes sense because Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera were avid collectors of ex-votos, decorating their house in Mexico City with hundreds of them. Here is an image I found of part of their collection:
You can really zoom in and get a look at some of these paintings in this photo.
It’s fun to trace the influence of ex-voto on Kahlo’s work in particular, and put some of her paintings next to ex-votos being made at the same time:
* * *
For more reading: “The Vivid Violence and Divine Healing of Ex-Voto Paintings”
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
“It’s Halloween… I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on.”
—Bob Dylan, 10/31/1964
Our second pandemic Halloween is coming up, so I’m thinking about masks. Specifically, how much I love photo projects that involve people wearing masks.
I’ve recently become interested in the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. In the late 50s in Kentucky, Meatyard, an optician who called himself a “dedicated amateur,” found a bunch of masks in a Woolworths and “over the next 13 years, Meatyard persuaded a procession of family and friends to don one of the Woolworths masks and pose in front of his camera.”
[Photographer Emett] Gowin, who posed for a Meatyard portrait, recalls thinking that wearing a mask would surely erase all sense of personhood. “But when I saw the pictures,” he says, “I realized that even though you have the mask, your body language completely gives you away. It’s as if you’re completely naked, completely revealed.”
Meatyard, btw, wasn’t some lone outsider — he was a part of Lexington’s artistic and literary scene. (Here’s a nice essay that points out the connection between Meatyard’s work and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.)
One of my favorite little art books is photographer Inge Morath’s Saul Steinberg Masquerade, a collection of portraits from the turn of the 50s/60s of people wearing Steinberg’s paper-bag masks.
These pictures remind me of something Vlad Nabokov wrote in Strong Opinions:
I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.
More from Morath’s book here.
Another series worth mentioning is David Wojnarowicz’s Arthur Rimbaud in New York, photographs he shot in the late seventies of people standing in various NYC places wearing a mask of the poet Arthur Rimbaud.
“What is it about masks and loneliness?” Olivia Laing asks in the Wojnarowicz section of The Lonely City.
The Rimbaud images are often mistaken for self-portraits, but in fact Wojnarowicz stayed behind the camera, using multiple friends and lovers to play the part of the mask-wearer. Nonetheless, the work is deeply personal, albeit in a complicated way. The figure of Rimbaud served as a kind of stand-in or proxy for the artist, inserted into places that mattered to David, places where he’d been or which still exerted a power over him.
If you include the fact that Steinberg called himself a “writer who draws,” all these mask photos have literary links.
And there’s one more link I can think of: the word “hypocrite.”
The word hypocrite ultimately came into English from the Greek word hypokrites, which means “an actor” or “a stage player.” The Greek word itself is a compound noun: it’s made up of two Greek words that literally translate as “an interpreter from underneath.” That bizarre compound makes more sense when you know that the actors in ancient Greek theater wore large masks to mark which character they were playing, and so they interpreted the story from underneath their masks.
Only later did the word come to mean “any person who was wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something they were not.”
(Another word to look up: Maskenfreiheit.)
The mouth holes of these Ancient Greek masks were engineered to help the audience hear the actors’ voices. (The mask helped amplify and project what was underneath.) But interestingly, some people like classicist Peter Meineck think it was the ambiguous emotional nature of these masks that made them so effective for drama:
The magic of the mask lies in how it transmutes depending on the angle and context in which we see it. Tilting a mask up and down can change its expression from enraged to content, while a human face is far more consistent from all angles. Because there is no face to tell you explicitly the emotion the character is feeling, your brain takes cues from movement and assigns the face an expression that makes sense. “Your cognitive system is seeing and suggesting the mask moving,” Meineck says.
The mask is a hypnotic call to theatre precisely because each audience member helps to create the emotional drama unfolding on stage. “I believe the mask is far more expressive than the human face,” Meineck says. Rather than being told what to see by an actor’s face, the audience plays a role in creating the emotion, projecting onto the mask what should be there rather than what is explicitly present, similar to the way the brain works to find meaning in abstract art.
(See: “The Neuroscience of the Tragic Mask”)
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) October 26, 2021
If you have other mask photography series you think I should see, reply to this thread!
From John Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs:
Celebrity, even the modest sort that comes to writers, is an unhelpful exercise in self-consciousness. Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being ‘somebody,’ to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over animation. One can either see or be seen. Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer became conscious of himself as a writer. The best seeing is done by the hunted and the hunter, the vulnerable and the hungry; the ‘successful’ writer acquires a film over his eyes. His eyes get fat. Self-importance is a thickened, occluding form of self-consciousness. The binge, the fling, the trip — all attempt to shake the film and get back under the dining room table, with a child’s beautifully clear eyes.
Coming across this portrait by Gjon Mili reminded me of how much fun I had researching Sterne’s work about 5 years ago.
Hedda Sterne (1910-2011) was a Romanian-born painter and artist who just so happened to be married to another favorite artist of mine, Saul Steinberg. Here they are posing in front of a fireplace:
Here’s a LIFE magazine profile of Sterne and Steinberg, where they’re billed as a sort of powerhouse art couple (they later separated, but never divorced):
Here’s a drawing of Steinberg she did in the 40s:
Here’s another photo of her posing for LIFE magazine with with a bunch of Abstract Expressionists, aka “The Irascibles,” many of whom didn’t want her in the photograph because she was a woman:
She outlived every single one of the bastards.
As Sarah Boxer points out, the photo is ironic, because “Sterne thought of herself as an anti-Abstract Expressionist, someone with no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture.”
In an interview with Art In America when she was 96-years-old, she explained that her art was not about ego, but about sharing what she had seen:
All along it was never imagination of self-expression. I always thought that art is not quote self-expression by communication. It is saying, hey, look! Of course, what you react to has to be transformed, without a doubt, or otherwise it is not art, but you do that whether you want it or not. The intention, the purpose, is not to show your talent but to show something. This is very important. Because I grew up and lived in a period of ego, ego, ego. And I was always anti-ego… I was always trying to reduce the ego… I had a very great urgency to show, to share… I discovered things and wanted to share them.
She conceived of her work as an act of pointing:
In our time, artists are inclined to believe that art is like honey, the product of their own subconsciouses, their own minds, and I do not. I see myself as a well-working lens, a perceiver of something that exists independently of me: don’t look at me, look at what I’ve found.
(I’m reminded of Corita Kent, who said, “I just make things I like bigger.”)
As a girl in Romania, she said, “All I wanted to do was stay home and draw and read. I taught myself to read and write when I was five. By the time I was six I read for pleasure. I had already read Dostoyevsky at eleven.”
From an interview with BOMB:
You see, one really doesn’t change that much. In many ways, I have a feeling that I am exactly as I was as a child, when I spent my life reading and painting. And then, erroneously, for a while, I was involved in trying to live like a grown-up, and then I got old, and now I’m back doing what comes naturally. I just read and paint.
She met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry not long after she arrived in New York. He would call her and read chapters of stuff he was working on at 2 or 3 in the morning. When he was working on The Little Prince, he asked her for the name of a good illustrator, and she convinced him to draw his own illustrations.
When they were married, she and Steinberg would cruise around:
We looked at everything, everything. Every Sunday when there was no traffic, we went motoring through New York. I was crazy about New York. Then in ‘47, I went to the country and I discovered agricultural machines. I had a feeling that machines are unconscious self-portraits of people’s psyches: the grasping, the wanting, the aggression that’s in a machine. That’s why I was interested to paint them.
She called herself a “kept woman,” and noted that because she was always married and had money, she didn’t really worry about fame or getting noticed, “I didn’t have to make concessions to be liked. If they liked me, it was OK. I never looked for a gallery.” She explained that staying away from fame was a way to protect her work:
I’ll have some terrific shows posthumously. I want to tell you something also, a little secret. Last summer, I read a book by David Bohm, the physicist, called Order, Science, and Creativity. They gave chimps paint and found that they’d rather paint than do anything else, they even forgot to eat. The only thing that stemmed the flow of the hated word, “creativity,” was when they began to reward them for painting. I have seen in my life again and again what fame does to people and I think that, subconsciously, I blundered to protect myself.
For her art was all about looking:
Whenever you reach a condition of true concentration, you do achieve an anonymous state. And, as a matter of fact, this is true for the onlooker, or the reader of a poem. Unless you can forget yourself when you look, there isn’t a true relationship happening between the work of art and the viewer. The same thing goes for work. The more anonymous you are and the more you lose yourself, the more you add to yourself. It sounds absurd, but that’s the way it really is.
She thought you could find inspiration everywhere:
I heard once about a Yiddish poet who lived in utter poverty and misery, a teenager, who never had seen anything beautiful in his life, and he made splendid poems about vegetables jumping into the soup pot. My idea being that for the sublime and the beautiful and the interesting, you don’t have to look far away. You have to know how to see.
Sadly, by the end of her life, she’d had a stroke and couldn’t see and spent her days in a wheelchair. (“I do my best work now… Only in my imagination!“) She said she had to learn to be idle:
Now that I am so old and incapacitated, I don’t do anything with great enthusiasm. You know, thinking, dreaming, musing, become essential occupations. I am watching my life. As if I’m not quite in it, I watch it from the outside. Because after so many years of working unceasingly, and enthusiastically, being idle is a tremendous effort of concentration and adjustment.
The luck is that there is less energy. That’s a compensation. It makes it easier. Just sitting. I saw peasants in Romania, you know, on Sunday, when they get up all summer at 4 and work incessantly until noon, let’s say. And Sunday they just sit, and their resting is so active like an activity, resting. It’s a beauty to behold, you know. It’s not just doing nothing. It’s being and existing in a certain way. In a way old age is a little bit like that. It has its beauties.
Here she is on the importance of her meditation practice to her work:
I’ve been meditating since 1966… I didn’t have a guru ever, but I read all the books. I gradually worked out my own system. It’s very, very much a part of my life… It has to do with cleaning the lenses, you know. Developing and taking care of your mind. A mind has to be both reflective and transparent. I do not separate any form of apprehending, perceiving and understanding. Let’s say the intellect is like going through the jungle with a machete, and the meditative mind is soaring above the jungle.
Here’s her unique way of keeping a diary:
I started doing one on my floor. I had a large canvas, and I divided it into days and months, and each day I put in one quote I was particularly fond of that I found in a book. And that was the diary. I did it for a year and a half, and then twice for two and a half months. The one for a year and a half is an enormous affair. I rolled it up because I can’t clean it without erasing everything. So now I don’t put it on the floor anymore. It was very good looking.
She was a truly fascinating artist. I encourage you to learn more about her work from these links:
Here are two books about art and horses open on my kitchen table this morning.
The top spread is from Dr. Seuss’s The Horse Museum, which was produced from an undated, unfinished manuscript that Theodore Geisel’s widow found in a box. (In the 1950s, before his children’s books had become popular, Geisel had worked on a television series called Modern Art on Horseback.)
This posthumously published text recently discovered in Ted Geisel’s studio uses horse-focused art pieces to provide historical context to artistic movements. Showing art ranging from the Lascaux cave paintings to an untitled 1994 sculpture by Deborah Butterfield, Joyner’s playful illustrations surround the curated photographs of art pieces. By using horses as the departing point in the artistic journey, Seuss and Joyner are able to introduce diverse perspectives, artifacts, and media, including Harnessed Horse from the northern Wei dynasty, a Navajo pictorial blanket titled Oh, My Beautiful Horses, and photographs by Eadweard Muybridge.
My personal favorite part of the book is the appendix in the back which goes through each individual piece of art featured in the book and its creator’s relationship, if any, to horses.
I got to thinking how interesting it would be to go through the archives of my own favorite artists and compare horse pictures.
Here, for example, are some of Saul Steinberg’s drawings of horses:
The other book on my kitchen table is unlike any book I’ve ever read. Heidi’s Horse, originally published in 1975, is a book by the painter Sylvia Fein, collecting her daughter’s drawings from her very first marks at the age of 2 up until the age of 17. (Fein was inspired by the Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s The Unfolding of Artistic Activity.) It’s a wonderful record of how the visual mind develops over time.
The book can be hard to track down, so here are the sections summarizing Heidi’s progression:
Here’s another page focusing only on Heidi’s horse heads (the title is, admittedly, kind of terrible, at the very least it should be Heidi’s Horses, plural):
In 1985, Sheila Graber animated Heidi’s Horse into this 16-minute film:
And here’s a great video from 2006 of Fein talking about the progression of children’s drawings and Heidi’s Horse:
If you sit down with a kid and watch them draw, it’s the most wonderful experience in the world. You’re seeing transformation right in front of your eyes.
The book has been hugely influential on me as I track the progress of my youngest son’s drawing.
More about kid’s art and art history: “Caveman drawings”
I was delighted when Ruben Chavez of Think. Grow. Prosper. told me he liked this Saul Steinberg quote from Steal Like An Artist so much he put it up on the wall in his office.
Steinberg is one of my absolute favorites, and this quote comes from his friend Kurt Vonnegut (another one of my favorites). In A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut called Steinberg “the wisest person I ever met in my entire life”:
I could ask him anything, and six seconds would pass, and then he would give me a perfect answer, gruffly, almost a growl. He was born in Romania, in a house where, according to him, “the geese looked in the windows.”
I said, “Saul, how should I feel about Picasso?”
Six seconds passed, and then he said, “God put him on Earth to show us what it’s like to be really rich.”
I said, “Saul, I am a novelist, and many of my friends are novelists and good ones, but when we talk I keep feeling we are in two very different businesses. What makes me feel that way?”
Six seconds passed, and then he said, “It’s very simple. There are two sorts of artists, one not being in the least superior to the other. But one responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”
I said, “Saul, are you gifted?”
Six seconds passed, and then he growled, “No, but what you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.”
Here’s a photo of the two friends, taken by Vonnegut’s wife, the photographer Jill Krementz (from this amazing album):
One of my favorite little art books to show the kids is photographer Inge Morath’s Saul Steinberg Masquerade, a collection of portraits of people wearing Steinberg’s paper-bag masks. (More from the book here.)
Here’s a mask Owen and I made when he was pretty small out of a Trader Joe’s bag:
Steinberg also made these funny little single sheet masks with just a spot for your nose. I’ll make one sometimes if we’re goofing around:
My pal Wendy is a big Steinberg geek, too — here she is entertaining Jules with a napkin a year ago in San Francisco:
The other day I reminded Owen of the book’s existence, and the next morning he surprised me in the bathroom:
Never gets old.
I love maps. I love looking at maps and I love thinking about maps and I love collecting maps.
When I was studying at Cambridge, I was writing essays for my tutor about Dickens and Dostoevsky, and they were just awful. I think my tutor thought I was a moron. (Or just an American student. Same thing.) Then one day I came in with a rough hand-drawn map of the London in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. He said my scribbled map was the best work I’d done.
I knew then, I think, that my talent was going to be for using pictures and words together, and maps would serve as useful inspiration. A decade ago, I published a blog post collecting a bunch of fictional maps, and I’m thinking of them again, thanks to a beautiful new book, The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands.
A few bedtimes ago, both the 5-year-old and I were just lying in his bed looking at maps and talking about him. A rare moment of bliss. (His book was entitled, simply, Maps.)
A while back I read an article about how to you have to get children to fall in love with the world before you ask them to save it. (Gary Snyder: “The first step, I think… is to make us love the world rather than to make us fear for the end of the world. Make us love the world… and then begin to take better care of it.”)
Part of the author’s research was looking at maps children of different ages make of their worlds. He describes the cartography of the different age groups:
From ages four to seven, children’s homes fill the center of their maps, and much of their play is within sight or earshot of the home. Children often describe the worms, chipmunks, and pigeons that live in their yards or on their blocks, and they feel protective of these creatures.
From eight to eleven, children’s geographical ranges expand rapidly. Their maps push off the edge of the page, and they often need to attach extra pieces of paper to map the new terrain they are investigating. Children’s homes become small, inconsequential, and often move to the periphery of the map. The central focus in their maps is the “explorable landscape.”
From 12 to 15, the maps continue to expand in scope and become more abstract, but the favored places often move out of the woods and into town. Social gathering places such as the mall, the downtown luncheonette, and the town park take on new significance.
As Michael Chabon once put it, “Childhood is a branch of cartography.”
Here’s Rebecca Solnit talking about why she loves paper maps (author of, among other books, A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas):
Maps are ubiquitous in one sense, and completely missing in another. A lot of younger people don’t own maps and atlases and don’t have the knowledge a map gives you. We call things like MapQuest and Google Maps on your phone interactive… but are they? Are they interactive? It’s a system that largely gives you instructions to obey. Certainly, obedience is a form of interaction. (Maybe not my favorite one.) But a paper map you take control of — use it as you will, mark it up — and while you figure out the way from here to there yourself, instead of having a corporation tell you, you might pick up peripheral knowledge: the system of street names, the parallel streets and alternate routes. Pretty soon, you’ve learned the map, or rather, you have — via map — learned your way around a city. The map is now within you. You are yourself a map.
Many of my favorite artists use maps in their work. Saul Steinberg is famous for his view of New Yorker provincialism, but he drew tons of other maps, including the one above, which was never actually published in his lifetime. Beautiful.
“Maps are arguments,” says Denis Wood. Maps tell stories. (They can also lie.)
Years ago, I found this online migration map that shows you how people move in and out of different counties.
Three maps that tell three stories.
The top map is Cleveland, where I used to live. Everybody’s leaving. It looks like an explosion.
The middle map is Austin, where I live now. Everybody’s moving here. It looks like a black hole.
The bottom map is Pickaway County, Ohio, where I grew up. Hardly anyone leaves. Hardly anyone moves in. It looks like a puddle.
I’m interested in how maps can move beyond geography towards mapping other things in the world. Here’s one of my favorite maps of all-time, from a 2005 Harper’s:
I love looking at those diagrams and thinking about the stories behind them. (For example, where is the single dots, depicting the virgins?)
Just this week I became obsessed with the plot maps on the back of new editions of the Choose Your Own Adventure series:
Around the same time I got interested in maps, I discovered “mind mapping,” and started making my own mind maps of the books I was reading:
When pictures and words are laid out in the same space — broken out of the linearity of normal type — you can see new relationships between them and come up with new ideas. I find this kind of drawing with pictures and words to often be way more powerful than simply writing longhand.
Years ago, I read Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination, and it had a big impact on me. (I later got to interview him about his work.) Turchi suggests that writers are cartographers, in a sense: they help people figure out where they are in the world.
I continue to be taken with this idea. I think of my books as way-finding devices: they show you how to get from where you are to where you want to be.
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