Fantastic Maps of American History

I think I need to start blogging more regularly about my finds in Boston area used bookstores.  Yesterday afternoon it was Atlas of American History, edited by James Truslow Adams and published by Scribners in 1943.  I paid five bucks for this book, which, following a beautifully simple plan, consists of 147 full page maps.  There are no paragraphs of text aside from the briefest notes where they can be fit into the maps themselves, and (a somewhat strange claim) there are no “nonexact pictorial interpretations”.  It works, though, and some of the maps are incredible.


I guess I’m always thinking about maps, but this book fits particularly well with some other things I’ve seen lately.  A little while ago the London Review of Books casually upended the world when they published a remark to the effect that the names of Tolkien’s hobbits were derived from American sources, in Appalachia to be specific.  The Boston Public Library is putting on an exhibit of maps of imaginary worlds.  They had Narnia, Middle Earth, and Westeros, but also Redwall; it was nothing revelatory, perhaps, but still cool to see them large and in one place.  Look at some of the place names on the map below.  What’s so fantastical, so outlandish, about fantasy?


Night Climbing

The London Review of Books has a regular back page feature called “Diary”.  Sometimes it is just that: Every so often, established contributors put together a selection of dated passages about their everyday lives.  Sometimes, it’s a short memoir. One writer described his time in the Air Force working with nuclear weapons, his growing obsession with accidental detonation, and his eventual discharge.  (You can read it here.)  He was nobody I’d heard of, but obviously it was memorable.  And sometimes, the diary is so much like regular political reporting that I can’t tell why they run it there.  Sometimes, though, they’ll run something wonderfully odd.  A couple of years ago there was a surprising piece on fan fiction by an American undergraduate (here).

A recent issue’s diary (here) is on “night climbing”, which means sneaking up and climbing whatever building you like, in the dark and without a rope.  In this case, it’s a colossal, doomed industrial landmark in London.  I’m not scandalized by this, not at all… except, well, I do sort of like the way it’s tucked in with the LRB’s usual, much admired mix of involved articles on parliamentary politics, the Magna Carta, French detective fiction, and so forth.  The author, Katherine Rundell, is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, a school so elite that there are no students, only professors.  Before reading this piece, I thought All Souls was mostly occupied by likes of the airy theologian of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist. (I thought it was Alvin Plantinga, but I think I’m mixing up my deolaters, and that’s another post.)  In any case, Rundell has me intrigued.  Her only publication listed by the LRB appears to be a children’s book about night climbing.  If I’m not mistaken, she also is a specialist in seventeenth century English poetry, but I imagine her rock climbing skills came in handy getting into All Souls?

Two questions I’m interested in:  We know basically what a diary or a journal is, but how far can the form be pushed?  And are there great diaries?  There’s Pepys of course, and otherwise famous writers have kept diaries, Woolf for example, but is there room in the canon for the great diaries?  I’m paging through a calendrical anthology called The Assassin’s Cloak; it’s interesting reading, but kind of overwhelming.  

What do I think of the London Review? I’m glad you asked…

I ought to take more surveys, because they force me to concentrate and have a way of turning postable.  It’s fun to try to figure out how many hardcovers I’ve bought recently and whether I buy gin often enough to qualify for “not that often but sometimes”, and it’s weird to see into the minds of the marketing people who care about it.  Here’s a paragraph I turned in describing what I think of the London Review of Books:

I think it’s great.  I value very highly the LRB’s attention to serious issues and works of philosophy, history, and politics.  Where else would I read about prosopography?  My main point of comparison for the LRB is the New York Review, and in this respect I think the LRB is superior.  If I am not mistaken, this is because the LRB selects more scholarly books for review and occasionally allows reviewers greater space.  I also appreciate the occasional departure from usual form represented by authors such as Eliot Weinberger or a diary on fan fiction.  Thanks!

To be fair, I should say that the NYR strikes me as wider ranging and superior in its coverage of American politics and culture.  It also has more pictures!

If I had to choose one, I’d probably go with the LRB.  In addition to what I said above, I like the LRB’s archive and the electronic version a lot.  I also have access to both magazines at my institution, so it’s not really such a terrible prospect.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you can look forward to a post on Nicholson Baker’s essays sometime, and maybe even a series on my preposterously uninformed reading of Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality.


A grim piece in the London Review of Books titled “Ghosts of the Tsunami” really got to me.  Mistaking it for a piece of political reportage, I almost didn’t read it. It turned out to be a bunch of wild ghost stories surrounding the disaster that struck Japan less than three years ago.  Tucked in the midst of it is a vivid but brief sketch of Japanese religion that maybe offers a foothold for the reader.  Otherwise, though it’s wrapped in a kind of journalistic veneer, there’s nothing detached or sceptical about the way these stories are told.  I think I’m having trouble making sense of it because it’s such an odd mixture of genre and reality, if that makes sense.  Obviously the trauma and suffering and damage of the tsunami doesn’t belong in the same category as silly ghost stories, but the piece suggests that the classic scary story is an important part of dealing with all this.

It’s an affecting article.  If you read it, I’m curious to know what you think.