Sunday, November 18, 2007

Old Printed Things

Went to the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair this afternoon. A glorious collection of old books, old prints, old maps, first editions of books from Dickens to Harry Potter, really old editions of Ovid, and not-that-old art book editions of Edward Lear.

Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe had a great showing. Everywhere you turned were books by or about them. Is this a fad, or are there just more books by them out there? Pop or cult fiction meets Legitimate Literature? Catch-22 was also fairly ubiquitous. Other notables were a first edition of the single-volume Dombey and Son, and a first edition of Charlotte's Web which White had inscribed to Nabokov.

And then there were maps. So many, many maps.

When poking through dusty old print shops, I usually look for maps of England or Maine or Boston or other places I know. There's something so wonderful about looking at an old map or reading an old description of a place you know well: some things will be very much the same, and others will be delightfully different. But so many of the maps today were of Boston and New England that I became numbed to them and began watching for something quite different: a differentiation of aesthetic pattern.

Maps of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries are usually as crammed full of information as possible. Hill-signs indicate mountains, mounds, and inclines; rivers, as alleyways of knowledge, are drawn in particular detail. Toponyms proliferate, filling blank areas with grey when viewed from a distance, and with a complex web of names when viewed close up. Where no information is available, cartographers fill empty spaces with sea dragons and tall ships, fierce, befeathered native peoples and cute little bunny rabbits. The result is a kind of fractal aesthetic: the image can be viewed at varying "zoom levels." At the lowest level--"zoomed out"--there is a uniform buzz or fuzziness to the image. You can't really appreciate more than a few of these at one sitting unless you're really looking for something specific, which I wasn't.

So instead, the maps that caught my eye today were entirely different from these. One is an early chart of the Carolina coast and a few nearby islands. Most of it is ocean and unexplored territory. There are maybe three toponyms on the whole map. Instead rhumb-lines (lines indicating the winds and compass directions) dominate the image, giving a sense of a perfectly clean geometry. The cartographer has made no attempt to embellish. There are just straight, intersecting lines, and one ragged coastline running across a third of the page. Clean and simple, if ripped haphazardly in two.

Another map was of the Philippines. It too eschewed with most toponyms. Each cluster of islands had its own color shading, and that was the only decoration.

These maps are best viewed from a distance; they just don't have zoomability. But today their simpler, larger spatial gestures offered me an alternative to squinting through familiar and unfamiliar placenames, bringing to mind Mondrian and a squigglier kind of Barnett Newman. These maps seemed postmodern in the face of the rest of the modern hubbub, and, in the face of a zooish conference hall, bespoke a different kind of calm, fresh, basic form and function.

1 comment:

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