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Reading as Map-Making?

One way to look at reading: as the lifelong construction of a map by which to trace and plumb what it has ever meant to be in the world, and by which to gain perspective on that other, ongoing map—the one that marks our own passage through the world as we both find and make it.

This is Carl Phillips, a poet, writing in an essay, Another and Another Before That: Some Thoughts on Reading.

Reading as map-making?

Another way to look at reading as healing?

I’ve been reading Andrea Barrett’s stories in Servants of the Map.  I just finished reading the first and title story in the collection, in which Max, a young man, is working in the Himalayas on the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India, this in the 1860’s.  (Who knew there was such a thing?)

Max is part of a grand project.  A grand adventure.  And, among other things, he offers one response to the question of how high school math—well, trigonometry that is—might be used in the world.

Triangulation.  This, apparently, along with something called plane-tabling, was the method then used for surveying and making maps.  I find it kind of fascinating.  (Bear with me.  Or maybe skim over this part if you’re not crazy about math.)  The method involved, first, measuring the distance between two vantage points: the base of a triangle.  Then, measuring the angles from these two vantage points to a higher point selected in the distance.  Then calculating the distance to the higher point using right triangles and trigonometry.

Here’s a diagram of triangulation via Wikipedia:


And here’s how Andrea Barrett invites us to participate in triangulation in the Himalayas, this in a letter from Max back home to his wife, Clara:

Imagine a cold, weary man on top of a mountain, bent over his theodolite and waiting for a splash of light.  Far from him, on another peak, a signal squad manipulates a heliotrope (which is a circular mirror, my dear, mounted on a staff so it may be turned in any direction).  On a clear day it flashes bright with reflected sunlight.  At night it beams back the rays of a blue-burning lamp.

“Servants of the Map,” a lengthy story, is a kind of collage: Max’s adventures in India alternating with letters that he writes back home to Clara.  Letters in which much is left out.  In fact, the first line of the story concerns this leaving out—these gaps in Max’s writing: “He does not write to his wife about the body found on a mountain that is numbered but still to be named: not about the bones, the shreds of tent, the fragile, browning skull.”

The story culminates in a final letter to Clara, a letter in which he needs to tell her that he has changed his mind, that instead of coming home when he planned he has decided to stay in India another year.  Ms. Barrett introduces this last letter with Max’s thoughts:

If his letters were meant to be a map of his mind, a way for her to follow his trail, then he has failed her.  Somehow, as summer comes to these peaks and he does his job for the last time, he must find a way to let her share in his journey.  But for now all he can do is triangulate the first few points.

Well, I love this—the rich and elaborate metaphor she manages to create here with triangulation.
A metaphor for writing.
And reading.
A matter of beginning with the first few points.
And then?

Here’s one more piece from Max’s letter, how the process of triangulation proceeds after the first triangle has been measured:

One of the sides of that triangle then becomes the base for a new triangle—and so the chain slowly grows, easy enough to see on paper but dearly won in life.