A book is a map of meanings – but a map is not the territory

two hands covered with writing - books, map of meaningsIn his short story On exactitude In Science, Jorge Luis Borge says that a map is not the territory, and should never be.

This is one of those statements you could dismiss as utterly banal and therefore not worth of any pondering.

But also that of gravity seems a banal concept, doesn’t it? After all we have all a basic and instinctual understanding of it. You know what I mean. Keep away from unprotected high places. Press benches are fine but don’t overdo them if you don’t want to get squashed under a barbell…

We have this basic understanding because we can observe the many effects of gravity on a daily basis.

A handheld hill

But in this case we would be confusing the everyday effects with the ‘force’ originating them. A force that is still to be fully understood.

Likewise, we know perfectly well what a map is. But sometimes we forget that what matters is the relationship, the guiding principle that from a certain territory leads up to the creation of a map.

Of course, maps are human inventions and their existence doesn’t have the same profound impact on the very fabric of the universe that gravity has. Still, maps can have an enormous impact on our understanding of the universe around us.

Maps in general represent reality through the manipulation of two dimensions. That’s to say scale and theme.

Imagine you are lost in a forest and after a whole day spent wandering around you climb up a steep hill and once on the top you can see the landscape around you for miles and miles.

Chances are you would find out quite easily where you are. You would therefore also be able to gain a general understanding of the direction you have to follow to get out of the forest.

Maps work like that. In some respects, they are like handheld hills.

Maps and their perks

However, sometimes if the landscape you are looking at is cluttered up and full of way too many different objects, you may find out that even from the top of a hill you cannot always so easily plan the route to follow to go from point A to point B.

In fact, irrespective of the level of magnification we’re looking at it, reality is always extremely rich. The amount of information it constantly offers us is bewildering.

In fact, that is the reason neuroscientists believe our brain is, among many other things, also a powerful filter. A device that lets reality seep through our senses and make us aware of a stimulus only when it is really important.

As we have seen maps are valuable tools because they can represent reality selectively from certain points of view. They can show us only a physical description of the territory. They can focus only on the underground web of tunnels of the subway in a big city. Or on the distribution of bodies of water.

In this way they help us focus our attention on those details we are most interested in.

Another perk of maps is that while from the top of a hill you have physical limitations–I mean, on a foggy day you could most likely spare yourself the trouble of climbing up that damn hill–with maps many of such limitations are removed.

For example, with maps you can “see” farther than you could with a naked eye. And you don’t have to hope for the weather to be fair. And did I mention that hills aren’t exactly the most handy devices?

A books is just a map of meanings

Books of fiction are just like that. They are sort of maps. For example, in terms of scale, they can just as well depict whole societies and eras as the inner workings of just one character’s mind.

And as for thematization, just like a “perfect” map would be as large as the territory itself and therefore useless, books also have to focus only on some facets of the story they want to tell if they want to retain their effectiveness.

For example, a book about madness could focus on the interior dialogues of the main character and devote little or no time at all to the description of the political setting in which the story takes place.

These are constraints. And at first blush they seem like limitations that should be overcome. In reality they are the very strength of maps and books alike. Just have a look at the profitable relationship between constraints and creativity.

As a result when we write we should never try to make our book like reality. Instead, we should try to make sure our book has a relevant and coherent relationship with reality, given the theme we have chosen.

Remember. Reality is a mess. The most powerful computers cannot perfectly compute the movement of four planets moving one around the others. Or the precise course that a drop of water will follow to get from the top of a mound to its base.

So, really, like Bukowski said, don’t try.

A word on education and learning

As Albert Einstein famously said education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.

This means maps can be useful. But if we thrust one into the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to read it, it’s like that old feminist slogan of the Seventies:  A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

The fact is we have to learn how to read maps to fully appreciate their usefulness. There’s no way around it. Similarly, to appreciate books, we must learn to read them.

Luckily, books are much more accessible than maps are. And you can learn how to read them just… Well, just reading them.

Besides, if you don’t “understand” a book you can always reread it. Or just move on to something else.

Someone will say that learning how to read a book requires us to have someone to teach us. That books are difficult maps of meaning and so on.

Maybe it is so. But not necessarily. You just have to have an inquisitive mind and stop now and then to ponder on what you just read. Maybe it will take you some time. But, really, great books never really require any preparation to be read. That’s why they are great.

Indeed, I believe critics and all those people who spend years debating about the word choices and the structure of a novel are no longer only reading a book. They are dissecting it. And that’s ok, of course. But if we want to do that, we need to retain our ability to switch between the proverbial trees and the forest.

Because we read a book for the story. Period. Then if we feel like we can always stop and study in detail some of its most rapturous passages.

Because if a forest is in place we can safely assume there are many trees in it. Instead, if we examine just three or four beautiful trees, we can’t assume there’s also a whole forest.

That’s why the story is king in fiction. And always will be. So go and make beautiful forests.

Pictures: Three-shotsjohnhain – Greyerbaby

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