YOU ARE HERE | literary maps and the imagination

map wallpaper

“I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and I find it hard to believe.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

I remember the time before GPS and Google maps, when I used paper maps for my trips and loved them. I still do, believe it or not, having yet to accept the relinquishing of control to a satellite and a computer. Before going on a trip, I order a map of my destination or make sure to pick one up at an airport, bookstore, or station. To some, this may seem archaic. To me, it’s the natural initial stage of the exploration that will unfold.

Unfolded and folded they are. My subway, city, and road maps are opened and closed dozens of times until the creases become worn and start to tear. I keep them nonetheless, since they’re marked with this or that side note on a find or route and often include an important circled area toward which I direct myself.

I have an affinity for all maps—old maps, new maps, brain maps, hand maps, waterways and highways and maps of the heart. So, when I came across Katherine Harmon’s beautiful book You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination I couldn’t wait to open its pages and absorb the wide array of mappings to discover something new. It’s alluring to know where you are, but it’s more exciting to see where you could go. Books, for me, hold the promise of a journey. And maps are power and possibility. They are both directions and suggestions. Maps are full of wonder.

Obvious from this book, born of the author’s own intrigue, some artists have felt the same way when evolving their work and have transposed their passion for the map into their art.

In You Are Here we find 7 particular instances where maps, literature, and the imagination cross paths.

1. Roald Dahl

You Are Here brings into focus both the usefulness and the endless possibilities inherent in maps through the words of the children’s book storyteller Roald Dahl, capitalizing on reading and writing as a mode of travel:

“Look for yourself. Here’s the very last map in the whole flaming atlas! We went off that over an hour ago!” He turned the page. As in all atlases, there were two completely blank pages at the very end. “So now we must be somewhere here,” he said, putting a finger on one of the blank pages.

“Where’s here?” cried the Head of the Army.

The young pilot was grinning broadly. He said to them, “That’s why they always put two blank pages at the back of the atlas. They’re for new countries. You’re meant to fill them yourself.” – from The BFG

2. Treasure Island by Robert Louis StevensonTreasure Island Map

Included in the chapter “Realms of Fantasy,” we find a perhaps familiar site, a map that sparked the imagination of many a young reader: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Harmon includes Stevenson’s explanation of how the map first inspired him to write the story. Of creating the map, he wrote:

It contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets….The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still traceable up hill and down dale…;here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see, or tuppenceworth of imagination to understand. – Robert Louis Stevenson

3. Body Map of My Life by Bridget Booher

Booher takes another approach to mapping and creates a verbal map of her own body, which through both physical and emotional scars exposes a route of memorable moments in her personal history:

11. Location: Top of Left Ear

Cause: Overstimulated preschool daughter whacks mother with plastic pail in Disney World swimming pool

Diagnosis: Broken Cartilage

Treatment: New Hairstyle

Follow-up: No more Disney World ever again

14. Location: Worry centers in depths of psyche

Cause: Marriage, motherhood, middle age

Diagnosis: Increased responsibility, less spontaneity

Treatment: New blonde hairpiece, spur-of-the-moment bike rides, and a toe ring

Follow-up: To be continued.

 4. Calvino’s Cities on the Amazon by Joyce Kozloff, 1995

Calvino's CitiesTo create a multimedia artwork complete with audio, visual artist Kozloff took inspiration from Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities in which Marco Polo describes 56 imaginary cities named after women. Kozloff explains her mapping inspiration: “I isolated something that moved me from each story. Going down the Amazon is another adventure fantasy, and so I collapsed the two preoccupations into one work.”

Harmon included Kozloff’s map perhaps to again show how maps are not always definitive or singular but stem from bifurcated dreams (one in the world of fiction and the other in solid geography) that, when joined together, lead to new realms.


Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places. – from Invisible Cities

5. A Walk Across England by Richard LongRichard Long's sculpture map

“Richard Long (b. 1940) investigates the reaction between a single man and a solitary landscape.” His conceptual art collections of photographs are coupled with short texts from various books. Harmon, believing that Long “takes mapping to its origins: feet connected to the Earth,” includes a few examples from a “A Walk of 382 Miles in 11 Days from the West Coast to the East Coast of England.” Long is said to see them as sculptures. I couldn’t help but to notice how in today’s traveling society, the blend of Instagram and Twitter is often used to produce something similar to, though perhaps more fleeting than, one of Long’s captured moments on the road.

6. The Map-Maker on his Art by Howard Nemerov

Nemerov’s poem seems at first take a lighthearted jest that could also be titled “The Wanderer and the Cartographer.” Yet, its lines draw out the daring effort it takes to travel the globe as well as the grandiose imagination and wonder called upon to map the same course. As a meta-poem, the words outline the art of the poem by bringing the readers directly to the wild encounters of the “bronzed, heroic traveler” and in doing so allow us to journey in our own way—through words as the narrator does through maps.

This my modest art

Brings wilderness well down into the range

Of any budget; under the haunted mountain

Where he lay in delirium, deserted

By his safari, they will build hotels

In a year or two. I make no claim that this

Much matters (they will name a hotel for him

And none for me), but lest the comparison

Make me appear a trifle colorless,

I write the running river a rich blue

And—let imagination rage!­— wild green

The jungles with their tawny meadows and swamps

Where, till thee day I die, I will not go. – by Nemerov

7. Manhattan by Howard Horowitz (Originally appeared in The New York Times August 30, 1997)

ManhattanA gestalt poem or a literary map? Both and neither. The difficulty of classifying this piece exemplifies the richness of the map as an art form which challenges our perception of how maps—whether of our inner or outer worlds—function or should appear. The author’s subjective feelings toward and memories of Manhattan influence the words that populate his city: “The riverfront was filled for barnacle-crusted peers, and Minetta Brook wetlands became lofts in Greenwich Village. A sweatshop horror: 146 locked-in women lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Watch skateboard demons cavort among panhandlers as old men play chess near the arch in Washington Square. N.Y.U students, art film fans, coffee drinkers, & East Village poets, crowd smoky joints on Saturday night; some cross (the Holland Tunnel) back out to New Jersey. Cheap gallery space is a memory in SoHo…”


You Are Here is an inspired volume replete with lovely images for the artist, map aficionado, and dreamer to send the reader on a virtual journey through emotional and physical lands. Harmon’s collection contains many more gems that enrapture. If you’re trying to navigate your way to success, hell, or a woman’s heart, you’ll find maps for those places and more.



About Sam at Reading the Road

Hello, I'm Samantha, author and editor of READINGTHEROAD.COM, a blog journal of travelogues, travel stories, personal essays, articles, reflections, reviews, and poems in which travel and literature intersect.

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