Book Review: The Lost Island Of Maps

The Lost Island Of Maps:  A True Story Of Cartographic Crime, by Miles Harvey

At the basis of this book is a compelling story.  As is often the case, though, with a story like this, the author felt it necessary to shoehorn a lot of other related subjects, including a brief history of cartographic crime as well as the habits of valuing books for individual maps that made it profitable, and the way that a large market for maps and a low supply of maps has made it profitable to steal books from libraries and then sell them for parts.  Now, as a book lover who loves to have books together and who hates to see books destroyed, I found much of the discussion here to be abhorrent, but there are likely a great many people who read this book who will find this book to be somewhat of an inspiration on how one can earn profit from bookstacks and then become involved in a hyper-competitive community of people seeking to make money out of what comes from books that may or may not actually belong to them in the first place.  Whether or not that sounds interesting to you will in part determine how you appreciate this book.

This particular book is about 350 pages and is divided into thirteen chapters.  The author begins with a look at the world of maps and cartographic theft that the author devoted himself to in an introduction.  After that there is a chapter about the Peabody map collection and how someone was found to be attempting to steal within there (1) and also the sort of imaginary creatures on old maps that are worthwhile for resale markets to people who want classy and old-fashioned maps (2).  There is a discussion on those who have made money selling maps and atlases (3) and the problems of library security that put many libraries in danger (4), and also some tips on how to make and take maps (5).  The author discusses the invisible crime spree in stealing maps that is largely unreported (6) and a brief history of cartographic crime (7), as well as the author’s interest in Fremont’s pathfinding (8) as well as the way that Florida has long been a place where people go for new beginnings (9), as well as the subject’s joy of discovery (10) and the island of lost maps that he stole from many sources (11).  At this point the author looks for insight in the map thieves background (12) and his lengthy and complex life story (13), after which there is an epilogue, acknowledgments, interview, notes, and an index to close out the book.

In reading this book, I was struck by how it is necessary sometimes for people who write books to fluff out their page count considerably in order to write a full book.  In all honesty, this book’s contents about the actual true story of cartographic crime that the author is writing about could have been written in a few lengthy articles.  It is the addition of context, including the context on the trade in maps and atlases that has exploded in recent decades, as well as the discussion of the vulnerability of libraries and the way that older maps have gained in value as a sign of class and distinction that contemporary geographers have not been able to keep up with, that makes this book a full length volume.  In general I do not like to encourage people to pad out book lengths, as a book that is less than 200 pages but focused is more enjoyable than reading a diffuse but larger book that is long enough to draw interest from publishers.  Even so, this book is a solid one and it is easy to enjoy it, and so I don’t feel it necessary to be too harsh when it comes to reviewing it.  One can do far worse when reading about maps or their theft.

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Book Review: GIS For Dummies

GIS For Dummies, by Michael N. DeMers

I must admit at the outset that I am not part of this book’s target demographic, which is people who are working for companies or who run companies that are looking to adopt one or another GIS software program as a way of using layered geographical data as a part of their business plan.  Although as a reader I have always been deeply interested in geography and even if I am a somewhat technically inclined person in terms of my own work experience, the sort of data that is talked about here is not something that I have any particular influence in.  That said, even given this I was definitely able to find some interesting potential aspects that this particular book could be useful in the sort of business I do as a way of helping to determine the most profitable geographical areas to a much more narrow level than is currently done.  And when I can see something that is of obvious potential use, it is not hard for me to champion and support such exploitation of geographical data for fun and profit, given my own fondness of looking at geographical for my own personal amusement apart from commercial concerns.

This particular book is about 350 pages and is divided into six sections and numerous chapters.  The author begins with an introduction that defines the target audience of this book and then moves into a discussion of how GIS is geography on steroids (I), even if the author is intent on not endorsing the use of such products, with chapters on the scope of GIS (1), as well as how maps show information (2), and how to read, analyze, and interpret maps (3).  After that there are five chapters that show how geography has gone digital (II), dealing with such matters as how to create a conceptual model (4), how to understand the GIS data models (5), how to keep track of data descriptions (6), how to manage multiple maps (7), and how to gather and digitize geographical data (8).  There is then a discussion on how one retrieves, counts, and characterizes geography (III), with chapters on finding information in raster systems (9), finding features in vector systems (10), and how to search for geographic objects, distributions, and groups (11).  This leads into a discussion of the analysis of geographic patterns (IV), with chapters on measuring distance (12), working with statistical surfaces (13), exploring topographical surfaces (14), working with networks (15), comparing multiple maps (16), and map algebra and model building (17).  After that the author discusses GIS output and application (V) in such areas as the production of cartographic output (18), as well as non-cartographic output (19), and how GIS is used by organizations (20).  Finally the part of tens (VI) comes where the author discusses 10 GIS software vendors that may or may not still be in business (21), ten questions to ask potential vendors (22), and ten GIS data sources, mainly government ones (23), after which there is an index.

This book’s approach is a familiar one if you know and like the series as a whole as much as I do [1].  Even if GIS seems unfamiliar to many, I found it to be quite enjoyable to learn about given its intersection of two things I care a lot about–namely the usefulness of geographical information and ways of combining this information together on different layers and with textual information via relational databases like SQL.  Even if this book was not aimed at me, and even if it is not something that I would find myself immediately looking for as a solution to business concerns, this is something I could totally see myself involved in and in supporting and in working in, and that is something that I found to be deeply interesting and worthwhile.  And for those readers who like me share an interest in geographical information and how it can be profitable for businesses, this book and others like it is definitely something that I can warmly recommend.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Geography For Nongeographers

Geography For Nongeographers, by Frank R. Spellman

This book was a great disappointment to me for several reasons.  Some of these reasons are related to the slant that this book has when it comes to this material from a political perspective (more on that below), but a great deal of it also comes from the way that the book’s materials slant heavily to physical geography rather than the sort of geography I find a lot more interesting in human geography.  This book could have been a lot worse, but even though it is by no means as bad as it could have been had it been even more politically biased than it is when it came to climate change (which is viewed here in a way that points to a great many causes other than human ones for temperature change on the earth and points to the possibility of global cooling as well as warming, cooling being the worse option), it is impossible to recommend a book like this one for someone who wants to know about geography.  It is, of course, far more helpful in helping the reader figure out what geographers think about their study, especially in an atmosphere where everything is politicized, but that is not nearly so interesting.

This particular volume is over 300 units and is divided into twelve chapters and six parts in a very unbalanced fashion.  After a preface, the book begins with the basics (I), which amounts to an introduction of the broad scope of geography (1).  After that there are seven chapters that take up about 100 pages of material that deal with the subject of physical geography (II) in various specialties, namely landforms (2), weathering (3), running water systems (4), glacial landforms (5), volcanic landforms and plate tectonics (6), wind-eroded landforms (7), and coastal features (8), all of which are filled with a lot of vocabulary to learn by the reader.  The rest of the book consists of larger chapters that deal with a variety of subjects like climate and weather (III, 9), soil (IV, 10), ecology (V, 11), and human and cultural geography (VI, 12).  All but the last are still biased towards physical rather than human geography, showing the general skew of this book.  There are two appendices that follow these chapters, one on worldwide industry and economic development (i), and another that contains the answers to the chapter review questions at the end of every chapter (ii), and then the book ends with an index and some information about the author.

Ultimately, such a book like this does a great deal of disservice to the sort of field it is trying to promote.  Yet it is also a reminder that no field, not even one that deals with physical and human realities relating to the shape of the world, is immune to the mistaken perceptions and the political worldview of human beings.  Even though there is an objective reality, our own understanding and interpretation of that reality inevitably involves is in problems of subjectivity, and where authors feel it necessary to promote their bogus neo-Malthusian mindsets as is the case here, they will hinder the ability of people to perform real studies and will endanger the support of the fields that they wish to promote the understanding of.  There is a lot that one can praise about geography and a great many aspects of geography that are well worth celebrating, but this book does a terrible job in this task because it calls to mind the way that all fields are under threat from the way that politics corrupts and infects everything and makes it increasingly difficult to support institutions whose perspectives appear to be highly politically motivated.

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A Poverty Of Language

One of the most profound ways that a language can be impoverished is to be unable to express or describe something.  There are, of course, various ways this issue can be overcome.  One can have languages like Hebrew, for example, where there are a few words but those words have a great deal of resonance in referring to many different senses, which can be felt or understood differently (and often in an ironic context).  One can have languages like German, where so long as something can be defined by adding words together one can simply make longer and longer words that allow one to express a given reality.  Alternatively, one can have a language like English or Greek where one attempts to coin new words to relate to the new realities, English being a language that is especially proficient at adopting words from other languages as well, a tendency that has only become more and more marked as a result of having been an unwritten language for centuries under Norman and Angevin French domination before returning to the world of literary languages in the 14th century and afterwards.

We must not delude ourselves into thinking that just because we have words to describe something that our problems are over.  Quite often in debates and controversies people have a way of talking past each other because each of them has different concerns and different worldviews and are paying attention do different things and not meeting minds at all.  Even if we use the same words to describe what we are looking for, we may mean those words in very different ways.  For example, a great many people will seek freedom as a freedom from intrusive regulation and domination while other people will seek for a freedom from the harshness of responsibility through paternalistic institutions and governments.  Such different senses and approaches to freedom are ultimately incompatible, since any institution or government that is strong enough to protect someone from poverty or folly will be far too oppressive and restive for others to accept as legitimate, given its own folly and theft.  And indeed we must not be under the illusion that understanding what others mean and having others understand what we mean is the end of trouble either, because in many cases goodwill and peaceful relations can only be maintained by ambiguity about what one means by things, because to be known is to be known as being in violent and massive disagreement, and therefore not someone who is safe to be on intimate and close terms with in a world where disagreement is akin to treachery.

Our poverty of language may exist on several levels.  We may lack the vocabulary to express ourselves to our own satisfaction, or may use words in different senses that other people do not understand.  We may lack the empathy or understanding to get where other people are coming from, often because we may not really want to know what they are about because it would be impossible to be on good terms with those whose ways we well understood.  We may have a poverty of language in the sense of being unable to deal with the sort of violent and extreme disagreement of thought, belief, and expression that we find.  Indeed, we may find ourselves facing this sort of poverty of language on all levels simultaneously, as appears to be the case when one is faced with violent rhetoric by people who have no seeming capacity to understand other perspectives and other worldviews and no empathy or standards of respect that apply to all humanity, including those with whom they are in disagreement.  Such a total impoverishment of language may also apply to us in our worst moments.

Nor does this exhaust the sort of poverty of language we may possess.  Without some sort of worldview we cannot make sense of the world or see patterns and structure in it at all, but all too often our worldviews filter out aspects of reality that are important to recognize.  We may see things that are not there, or see things that other people do not see, or do not see things that others do, and may find it impossible to convince others that what we see is genuine or to be convinced about what others see that one does not see.  J.R.R. Tolkien noted once, for example, that the hero of his friend C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy was like him only with his opinions Lewisified.  Such a fate befalls all who are written about by others.  I have no doubt that other people have been irked and bothered by how they have been Nathanified in my own writings and I have been irritated and bothered by the skewed and warped perspective other people have had on me that has had very little relation to the genuine article.  Our poverty of perception and our poverty of giving others the benefit of the doubt or viewing their motives and perspectives and approaches charitably feeds into our poverty of language and exacerbates its problems.  To resolve such problems we have to work on ourselves, and that is much harder work than most of us can do well or quickly.

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Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The Skeptic’s Guide To American History

Great Courses:  The Sketpic’s Guide To American History, taught by Professor Mark A. Stoler

This particular audiobook disappointed me.  I consider myself a rather skeptical and critical person when it comes to myths of history, and this book certainly was hostile to at least some myths, but at the same time it struck me that the professor of this course was not nearly skeptical enough about the leftist myths of the contemporary historical community.  Even as he commented that later generations would see things differently than we do, which is certain to be the case, the instructor did not do a very good job at showing himself above the sort of myths of woke history that have made totems out of various subaltern groups and individuals in history because they suit contemporary political agendas.  Indeed, this author spends a lot more time talking about various patriotic myths and seems a bit too smug and self-assured as a skeptic when he is, as is often the case, not nearly skeptical enough, and not nearly enough concerned about the long-term ramifications of various historical decisions made by leaders, and certainly fear too dismissive of the importance of, for example, guilded-age and late antebellum presidents, even as he tries to promote the importance of others who have also been unfairly ignored.

This particular course was made up of twenty-four lectures of 30 minutes apiece on twelve discs.  The author began by questioning religious toleration in the colonies (1) and discussing the American revolution as neither American nor revolutionary (2), then moved to discussing the lack of democracy in the Constitution (3) as well as the failures and accomplishments of Washington as a general and president (4).  The instructor discusses the confusion about Hamilton and Jefferson (5), Jackson’s role as an odd symbol of democracy (6), the enduring impacts of the Second Great Awakening (7) as well as the question of slavery as the cause of the Civil War (8).  There are lectures on the turning points of the Civil War (9), the myth of laissez-faire (10), misconceptions about the original populists (11), and the strange history of labor in America (12).  There are lectures about American isolationism and imperialism (13), as well as progressivism (14), Woodrow Wilson and his presidential ranking (15), the roaring twenties (16), Hoover and the Great Depression (17), and what Roosevelt’s New Deal did (18), where the instructor is way too enthusiastic about what it managed to accomplish.  There are lectures on misconceptions and myths about World War II (19), the Cold War (20), Vietnam (21), and some myths in general about American wars (22), before the instructor concludes with discussions on who matters in American history (23) and the obvious fact that history did not begin with us (24).

In listening to a class like this, it is easy to think of how it could have been better.  Judging from the author’s praise of John Quincy Adams’ programs as a president and his consistent disdain for those who believe in the restraint of government–and his praise of Herbert Hoover and FDR in particular–it is clear that the author has some myths and misconceptions of his own that he needs to address before seeking to demythologize American history, namely his myth that government intervention in panics and depressions has worked out for the best.  The author seems to be blinded by the potential for leaders to do things and dismissive of those leaders who worked within the system and did not attempt to draw too much attention or adoration to himself.  This leads him to support the more authoritarian or personality-driven aspects of American history and to lament when people who did well are ignored in the narrative of history except by those who study history more in-depth, which demonstrates the way that the author is looking not for the appreciation of deep students of history but rather for changes in how history is viewed by the ordinary mass of Americans, which seems to be a quixotic sort of quest.

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Audiobook Review: Saxons, Vikings, And Celts

Saxons, Vikings, and Celts:  The Genetic Roots Of Britain And Ireland, by Bryan Sykes, read by Dick Hill

For the most part this is an enjoyable book.  The author is in charge of Oxford Ancestors, one of the many companies that seeks to build an understanding of the genes of men and women for profit and research, and this book follows in the author’s previous work on the subject in books like the Seven Daughters of Eve.  As is often the case in a book like this [1], the author weaves as great deal of his own story into the obvious larger story of population movements and how they can be traced.  This is certainly not objectionable, the author is humorous and it is deeply fascinating to see how he turned to blood donors as early adopters for genetic research in the days where blood was necessary before the cheek swabbing that I did became popular and less painful for those who wished to have their gene markers better known and understood.  And since the story is generally intriguing and mixes an interest in narrative story and myth (although selectively) with his interests in genetic genealogy, all of which provides an intriguing picture.

This particular book is organized in a geographic way, breaking up the British Isles into four large regions and numerous smaller ones that are based as much as possible on history with an eye towards distinguishing these regions based on their history and determining at least some of the influences that they were faced with.  Beginning with Ireland and then moving on to Scotland, Wales, and England, the author finds a dominant Celtic mDNA pattern (along with a healthy amount of Middle Eastern Atlantic farmers in the west) throughout the Isles except where there has been some Viking women, such as in the Shetland and Orkney islands off of Scotland.  His efforts at understanding the y-DNA picture are a bit hampered by the Genghis effect which shows mostly Celtic ancestry throughout the isles, with Gaelic replacement of Picts in much of Western Scotland and a notable spike of Danes and/or Saxons in the Danelaw.  These conclusions, along with the process by which the author sought enough genetic evidence to be able to come to his conclusions, is told with a good deal of verve and gentle humor throughout, and summarized at the end as well.

Even if I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions or with his belief in a supposed genetic clock, there is still a great deal worthy of insight here.  The author notes that the different way that y-DNA and mDNA are spread, whether on the strict paternal or maternal lines, tend to give very different results, as sex-selective patterns appear to have been far harder on men, and the competition for women led certain genes (like the Clan Donald and Dougal or the Ui Neill) to be particularly common but with a great deal more consistently Celtic stock among women, who presumably were less able to establish competitive lines that had the same difference in prestige as was the case among men.  If the author seems particularly disinclined to ponder about the relationship between the biblical history and the Isles, and the way that small elites were particularly important in leadership, there is still at least some worth in the author’s approach.  If he finds a compelling story, it is at least one that he considers to be evidence based, although he appears to underestimate the importance of interpretation to his own approach, even as he gently chides such writers as Gildas for exaggerating the effects of the Saxon invasion, for example.

[1] See, for example:

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Audiobook Review: The Patriot’s History Reader

The Patriot’s History Reader:  Essential Documents For Every American, by Larry Schweikart, Dave Dougherty, and Michael Allen, read by Tom Weiner

Does the thought of listening to more than fourteen hours of the reading of important documents from colonial periods to the Obama administration interest you or terrify you.  If it is the first, you will likely appreciate this selection of documents, framed with thoughtful questions and an interesting (and often libertarian) perspective by the authors.  If it is the second, you are probably not someone who knows American history very well and you could probably use the encouragement these authors provide in giving students of all ages a better understanding of American history through important documents.  I must admit that I would not have chosen this particular group of documents myself, nor do I agree in all cases with the perspective of the authors.  But I do appreciate the perspective of the authors and the work that they do in bringing sometimes obscure but important texts to the attention of readers, and how they present the course of American history as one of a decline from original principles of freedom and responsibility to increased pandering to identity politics and increased calls on government to step up for people who cannot and will not take responsibility for their own lives.

Without a doubt, there are a lot of documents to be found here.  There are some famous documents included–Supreme Court decisions like Marbury vs. Madison, Dred Scott vs. Sanford, Plessy vs. Furgeson, and Roe vs. Wade among them; the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, and so on.  There are writings from obscure social thinkers, policy speeches from George Washington, Herbert Hoover and FDR.  We have Lincoln’s first inaugural (but not his second inaugural) and Emancipation Proclamation, Bush’s Washington Cathedral speech and Obama’s Cairo speech.  These various speeches and documents, many of them excerpts from longer works, go on for more than fourteen hours, and are organized chronologically.  There appears to be a particular interest in executive orders and Supreme Court decisions of dubious legality that show the justifications that people have and the precedents that people seek to justify the decisions they make.  The authors make some note of the approaches of the various people and comment on when America made disastrous foreign policy mistakes, as with trusting the Soviets during World War II and trying to coddle the Arab Street under Obama.

In reading (or listening) to this book, someone gets a couple of indications.  For one, the authors are intensely critical of the decline of American society in terms of freedom and in faithfulness to God.  For another, the authors are keen readers of the context and tone of text, and occasionally offer criticism of people for saying the right thing but saying it in a way that did not appeal to certain important parts of the audience.  Above all, the authors make it clear that they have abiding mistrust for the behavior of the Supreme Court from the get go, and this mistrust is fair given the way that the Supreme Court has often served to enshroud injustice and wickedness with the protection of the highest court, whether that be slavery, segregation, abortion, or the widespread theft of private property for bogus purposes.  This book is not easy listening at seventeen hours of documents and questions and summary, but for those who want to know more about American History and where and how things have gone wrong, this audiobook has a lot to offer, even if you’re going to be listening to it for a while.

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On The Neglected Ironies Of Coercion Culture

For some time, I have found myself to be deeply troubled by the implications of the contemporary hostility towards coercion that has made itself plain in language and culture.  Few people would doubt, for example, that rape is a horrible offense and a great many people would not think any punishment or suffering to be too harsh for those who have committed rape against others, and many people would even justify second-order repercussions for those who enable rapists to get off easy for the offense, like judges giving rapists a slap on the wrist for something that can cause lifelong damage.  My own personal thoughts are that rape should be enforced with the biblical punishment of death to the rapist, but I am aware that such a punishment has been considered unconstitutionally harsh by the Supreme Court.  Be that as it may, what our contemporary culture has seen has not only been a much harsher attitude towards this particular crime but also an expansion of the horror to things that are not strictly the forcible sexual assault of someone but things that are murkier and less clear.

For example, earlier this week a study was reported that claimed that the number of women that had been raped was far higher than 1 out of 6 (itself a harrowing enough number), with rape defined as any sex that came about because of threats and verbal pressure or anything that was later regretted.  To be sure, a great many people likely regret their past sexual experiences for one reason or another.  Besides cases where people cannot or do not actually consent to sex, there are a great many reasons where sexual intimacy would be regretted after the fact–one’s feelings about one’s partner changes, one feels manipulated and pressured, and one finds out that intimacy is not nearly as enjoyable in temporary and disposable relationships as one had thought.  Such regret may be felt by men as well as women–both men and women have tended to nag and manipulate their partners for what they want, and both can feel regret about the way that they can feel trapped in unsatisfactory relationships yet feel honor bound or otherwise tied to others whom they neither respect nor love.  And there have no doubt been many men who have been pressured to live up to a standard of honor by marrying those women they have gotten pregnant, for example, and have regretted the souring of marital relations based on an absence of virtue and restraint on either side.

Some commentators have noted that there are unsettling implications with the expansion of the term of rape to involve such situations.  I agree, for example, that the implications of a term like power rape would tend to delegitimize many of the ways that men have sought to attain success in love and relationships by using money or offices of authority to make themselves more attractive as romantic partners than they would be on the strength of their own limited charm and personal attractiveness throughout history as well as in the present day.  To the extent that coercion itself is viewed as illegitimate, it is wrongful for someone to use their personal or positional authority to subtly coerce others into fulfilling one’s own longings for sex and intimacy.  But such implications go well beyond this, so as to make any sort of attempts to seduce or persuade potentially illegitimate.  And without seduction or persuasion or increasing one’s own power as a way of pulling others within one’s orbit, there are very few ways that people can legitimately seek love and intimacy.  Likewise, if persuasion and seduction are to be illegitimate when it comes to sexuality, are they going to be equally legitimate when it comes to selling cars or marketing anything?  What about the attempt to convince people they are wrong when it comes to political or religious matter?  Is that sort of talk to be viewed as being rape-like and therefore horrifyingly illegitimate as well?

Indeed, it is little surprise that some car dealerships have sought to move to a no-haggle approach by which cars are treated like any other product with a retail price that is a fair price that customers are expected to pay because of the increasing displeasure that people have with haggling and the view of such discourse as coercive and illegitimate.  Among the consequences of this would be to make those who would engage in bargaining or haggling behaviors (such as, for example, the normal discourse in the Middle East) as a particularly aggressive and coercive and unpleasant lot of people, which is likely only to increase the cultural gap that exists between cultures with different standards for communication.  If bargaining and countering other people’s objections with counterobjections (which has been viewed pejoratively as mansplaining or whitesplaining, but which can be done by anyone) is viewed as illegitimate, then there is little room for civil debate because such discourse always involves people seeking to reframe things and countering our expectations and our understanding.  If we view our own perspective as absolute truth which cannot be questioned by others, anything which wishes to correct us or redirect us or question us is going to be viewed as unacceptable coercion.

Yet those people who feel the most sensitively about such matters have not ceased their own attempts to correct others or to use the authority of governments and offices to enforce their own views on everyone else, nor have they ceased to express their own disapproval about the way that certain others think or believe or behave.  Such hypocrisy is transparent, but it is also widespread.  If correction and attempts at persuasion and response are coercion and if all coercive speech or action is illegitimate, then we can properly not show hostility or disapproval to anyone’s speech or conduct, nor attempt to shape anyone else’s beliefs or behavior in any fashion.  The only permitted speech in such a situation is either that speech which refers to ourselves and that speech which gives attaboys or attagirls to those people speaking about their experiences and their feelings and their opinions and their views.  No criticism or correction of any kind is to be granted legitimacy whatsoever.  Again, one can see this sort of tendency coming to pass where people are increasingly unwilling to accept correction or discipline or to tolerate disapproval or disagreement.  The result is an increasing use of silence and avoidance to shape our interactions in such a fashion that no such disapproval or disagreement needs to be voiced, but in such a fashion that greatly limits our own interactions with others and our own regard or affection for others.

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Book Review: The Lost Art Of Finding Our Way

The Lost Art Of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth

This particular book is a fascinating one because it explores one of the fundamental issues of our age, and that is the way that our use of computerized maps and detailed directions has tended to reduce our ability to find our way using cues and clues in creation.  This particular complaint is one that many people have when it comes to technology, the concern that greater technology will mean a loss of important life skills because reliance is placed on one’s external memory and not one’s internal one.  When it comes to navigation skills, this seems like a reasonable concern, not least of which because a blind reliance on technology can lead people to overlook basic signs and cues that one can gain simply by being alert and aware, and there are situations (such as, for example, when roads and areas are under construction) where computerized directions are likely to be in error and where some local knowledge would be useful when it comes to knowing the right detours to follow.  Yet the author has far more ambitious goals even than this when it comes to understanding what cues we have available to us, which makes this book a joy to read.

This particular book, if you include its appendices, is about 500 pages or so, and it is divided into 18 chapters and four appendices.  The book begins with a discussion of navigation before technology was relied upon (1) as well as a discussion of the maps we have in our minds (2).  After this comes a discussion about being lost (3) and the use of dead reckoning to get a rough idea of where one is (4).  After that the author talks about urban myths of navigation (5) as well the use of maps and compasses (6) as well as stars (7) to aid in navigation.  After that the author talks about the sun and the moon (8) as well as the places where the heavens meet the earth (9).  There is a chapter on longitude (10) as well as weather myths like the red sky at night (11) and how it is that people gained skill at reading the waves (12).  There are chapters on soundings and tides (13), currents and gyres (14), as well as a look at the speed and stability of hulls (15).  The author then writes about discussions of travel against the wind (16) as well as our fellow wanderers in creation (17), and an extended story of one particular navigator in the Pacific (18).  There are then four appendices that close the book as well as a glossary, notes, acknowledgments, and an index.

It is obvious that if someone has a love of navigation than this book would be an enjoyable one.  There are plenty of forms of navigation that are interesting from a historical perspective, as the author is especially impressed with the navigation skills of the Polynesian sailors, for example.  There are also some forms of navigation that are useful for people who go into the wilderness, in using dead reckoning to deliberately seek to meet up with a landmark like a river and then move a particular direction to reach one’s destination rather than be mistaken in trying to guess exactly where somewhere was.  The stories the author tells blend with some humorous urban myths about moss preferring the north side of trees, assuming that there is no moisture on other sides, for example, and demonstrates that humanity has done a good job throughout history of having solid cues for knowing where one was.  If such cues are completely lost than there will obviously be a greater vulnerability where technology is not available, but most people will probably be content to look at their GPS and not think about such subjects.  For those people who do find this book and its content interesting, there is a lot to appreciate and learn from here.

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Book Review: The Art Of Wandering

The Art Of Wandering:  The Writer As Walker, by Merlin Coverley

Admittedly, I am far better as a writer than as a walker, but both are activities I tend to enjoy, so long as they are not overly strenuous.  My walking, unless I take a cane along, has been a bit limited in recent years but it is certainly an activity I have long enjoyed for its slow pace and the enjoyment of light exercise and beautiful sights.  One the theses of this book, though, is that a great deal of writers don’t really write about walking because it is something that is taken for granted, and the author seeks to discuss walking (and other means of transportation) with a great deal of focus on what the authors reveal about their walking, whether the destination or what they saw along the way or what.  Speaking personally, there is an element of walking that I focus on in my writing and that is the painfulness and slowness of my hobbling in the face of my frequent foot pains due to gout [1], and that is, sadly, an element of walking that the author chooses not to discuss for one reason or another, even if it is of course of great interest to me as someone who is both a walker and a writer and who does both activities painfully.

This book of a bit more than 200 pages is divided into nine chapters where the author discusses his love of talking about how writers deal with the subject of walking.  The author begins by talking about the writer as a walker and how walking appears in writings.  After that the author discusses walking as it occurs in philosophy (1) as well as in the writings of various people about pilgrims and pilgrimages (2).  This is followed by a discussion of the imaginary walker, or how people walk in their imagination as a way of staying sane while under confinement (3).  Then there is a discussion about the walker as a vagrant, where writers discuss their own occasional vagrancy (4).  There are then discussions about the writer and his (or her) discussion of the natural world (5) as well as the writer as a visionary (6), and even an entire chapter on the flâneur (7).  After that there is a discussion of experimental walking (8) as well as the return of the walker (9) in more contemporary writings, after which the book closes with a bibliography, online sources, and notes.

It is quite intriguing to see the way that walking has influenced the writing of various people.  Some of the stories told in this book are quite fascinating, like the way that the timing of the writings of Virginia Woolf requires a phantom taxi to work things out right in Mrs. Dalloway, for example, or the way that walking was not quite as fundamental to the development of philosophy as is sometimes argued to be the case.  When it comes to the relationship of great thinkers and writers it turns out that they were not quite as interested in walking as is sometimes argued to be the case, and it is somewhat impressive at times to see the way in which people have managed to obtain graduate degrees based on obscure walking details, and that this research makes for a generally enjoyable if somewhat quirky book.  Admittedly, I do not think that many people are interested in the relationship between walking and writing, whether one deals with philosophy or literature or the naturalistic writings of Muir, but for those who are interested in such matters this book is a worthwhile ramble through the subject.

[1] See, for example:

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