Sign up FAST! Login

The Allure of the Map

The Allure of the Map The New Yorker


Writers love maps: collecting them, creating them, and describing them. Literary cartography includes not only the literal maps that authors commission or make themselves but also the geographies they describe. The visual display of quantitative information in the digital age has made charts and maps more popular than ever, though every graphic, like every story, has a point of view.

Maps are a standard of adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island” did not begin with Billy Bones or Jim Hawkins, but with a map. Summering in Scotland, in 1881, Stevenson entertained his twelve-year-old stepson by painting when the rain and cold kept them indoors. Stevenson writes, in an essay: “On one of these occasions I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully colored; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbors that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’ ”

Not only did the map give Stevenson a setting; it shaped the novel’s narrative and characters. Stevenson wrote that, when he “pored upon [his] map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting, and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection.” The map printed in the novel’s pages was not some final flourish but a record of its very origins.

Stashed in: Maps

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

My favorite part on maps of old: "Here be monsters..."

You May Also Like: