I grew up moving around. From my birth to my high school years, my family moved at least once every two years. There’s no way to gauge how much that forced mobility shaped me as a person, but it certainly made me unafraid to pick up and go somewhere else.
The day after my last final of my undergraduate studies, I moved out of my parents house, from the bucolic plains of southeast Alabama to the Cascadian coast of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve moved more times than there have been years since then and even more than I did growing up. Seventeen of those twenty-odd treks have been state-to-state moves.
There are certain things you learn from a life on the road. You learn to keep your life lean (except perhaps for the literary indulgences; books tend to be the bulk of any of my many moves), you learn to pack what you keep efficiently, you learn to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones, and you learn how to read a map.
In The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), Rebecca Solnit addresses all of the above with the intricacy and intimacy for which she is known. Even the books, about which she writes, “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone” (p. 61). And in another passage that deserves quoting at length, she writes,
This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping unknown territory that arrises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet (p. 54).
There are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again. Every time it feels like the story of her troubled relationship with her mother is getting more alienating than engaging, Solnit drops a paragraph like this one:
My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them (p. 29).
Her ability to connect the mundane to the monolithic is time and again why she’s one of the more reliable voices in cultural history and criticism and remains one of my very favorite writers.
“What size is representation?” Solnit asks, “No size at all, for we get used to seeing satellite photographs of continents the same size as snapshots of babies” (p. 92). If Solnit’s book is about the territory of living itself, then Laura Kurgan’s Close Up at a Distance (Zone Books, 2013) is about the representation, the technologies, the map itself. And it’s beautiful in a completely different way. Kurgan, who runs the Spatial Information Design Lab, directs the Visual Studies program, and is an Associate Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, is not only close with mapping technologies but also quite critical of their shaping how we see the world. “The consumers of generally available satellite imagery,” she writes, “or even the ones who download images for a price from a commercial satellite database, will never know who has tasked a satellite to take a picture (unless they did it themselves) in order to see something close up, but from far away” (p. 20).
The problems of perspective that Solnit mentions above are evident in Kurgan’s critiques. As much as they reveal, remote sensing and imaging technologies remove us from the grit and grind of the realities on the ground. Kurgan investigates these processes through nine case studies, from the images of earth shot from space (i.e., Earthshine and Blue Marble) to satellites over Manhattan on 9/11. Kurgan writes, “The ease with which we can conduct these experiments often hides the reasons for the existence of the images in the first place,” (p. 20), military purposes often being the most nefarious. As Braun (2005) puts it, “…media should never be understood only through their superficial characteristics or merely as interfaces: Certain ideas of reality, society, and subject are always encoded in them” (p. 73). The assumed objectivity of these images is suspect, as they mediate (i.e., insert themselves into) our view, obscuring our ability to accurately interpret what we see.
What the map cuts up, the story cuts across. — Michel de Certeau
However tempting it might be to call Solnit’s book the micro-view and Kurgan’s the macro-, or one about life lived up close and the other at a distance, both are intimate narratives of their subject matter. New books, new stories, new places, new cities can all be a challenge, but dealing with them is manageable and fun. You learn the characters, learn the tropes, learn the plot, learn the map, learn the landmarks, learn the major thoroughfares and cross-streets, and learn when it’s okay to get a little lost.
Braun, Reinhard. (2005). From Representation to Networks: Interplays of Visualities, Apparatuses, Discourses, Territories, and Bodies. In Annmarie Chandler & Norie Neumark (Eds.), At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 72-87.
de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 129.
Kurgan, Laura. (2013). Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics. New York: Zone Books.
Solnit, Rebecca. (2013). The Faraway Nearby. New York: Viking.
Many thanks to Ken Wark for suggesting I review these two titles in tandem.