I’m currently making my way through Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a book devoted to, in large part, examining the history and psychology of science fiction as much as her own creation of it. “Dire Cartographies,” the third chapter, delves into the need a reader has for some sort of a map, physical or not, to go along with the story. Atwood mentions one of the more outstanding cases, Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series, that includes a typically detailed map of Middle-Earth and beyond.
The idea is that the reader needs to believe that the place she is reading about could be real, no matter how fantastical the subject matter may be. Providing that real-life map gives her something to reference back to and chart the progress of the Fellowship as they make their increasingly treacherous journey.
It got me thinking about how I relate to the geography of books as I am reading. Some years ago I discovered that I am inherently a visual leaner, and concepts that are confusing when spoken aloud become much more clear if I can chart them out. As a result, maps have been an invaluable addition to any book I am reading. In fact, from my days as a high school English teacher, I found maps to be quite useful in the classroom as well. Together with my students we would follow the windy and expansive Mississippi River through Huck Finn’s adventures, and pin-point the fictionalized East and West Egg inhabited by those of a much more rarefied air in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. The act of linking a character to a place in someways helps solidify that character.
That holds true even if the place doesn’t exist. The hordes of loyal Game of Thrones readers will attest to the need to know just where the Wall is in relation to King’s Landing. In the same way knowing the approximate location of Toby’s hideout in Atwood’s own The Year of the Flood helps give an urgency to her plight.
I believe that it comes down to the basic desire for sense of place. That being able to look at a physical representation of the story, or to clearly visualize the geography helps to bring the story to life. For, without a believable and “potentially mappable place, we will not suspend our disbelief willingly.”
Reading is, at heart, a chance to escape. And while it’s sometimes nice to head out into the great unknown, being able to chart a way home certainly is a comfort.