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Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (46)
Inevitably a book that confirms or conforms to our own conceits has a particular appeal. So it is entirely possible that other readers will not enjoy this slender but potent novel of ideas as much as I did. But, because I agree with so many of the concepts contained within and with the central premise on which it is based, I really thought it was extraordinary.
The narrative structure of the book is deceptively simple. James Cowan claims to have found the journal of the 15th century Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro. Within the pages of the journal, Mauro describes his work on what he hopes will be his masterpiece, a great mappa mundi (world map) that will contain everything that he knows about the geography of the world (the map pictured above is actually not the map described in the book, but instead the only known surviving Mauro map). The irony, of course, is that Mauro lived in the monastery of San Michele di Murano and was not himself a traveler or explorer. His definitive map was to be based on knowledge acquired by and from others. The journal describes visits he received from individuals who had actually traveled abroad and were interested in sharing their knowledge with him.
Now I spend a lot of time in these reviews unabashedly arguing for the supremacy of Western Civilization--its Culture: music, literature and the plastic arts; Political and Social Institutions; Economic System; Scientific advances; etc.. And it seems to me that there is one great achievement that is really central to all of the achievements or, at the very least, has facilitated all of them; that is the development of means to systematize, retrieve and pass on knowledge. It should be obvious on its face that no culture that failed to produce a written language can lay any claim to even being a true Civilization. Even those which developed languages, but failed to develop knowledge or failed to accumulate and preserve knowledge, can hardly claim to be great Civilizations. And those which made developed some capacity to further knowledge and to safeguard the results for the use of subsequent generations, but failed to disseminate such knowledge widely, must pale by comparison too. For what we in the West achieved was a set of systems for accumulating knowledge, experimenting in order to increase that knowledge, storing and sharing that knowledge widely and a series of religious and political theories to induce citizens to strive to further all of these achievements.
Think for a moment of how insanely optimistic it was for men to first sit down and produce things like maps, dictionaries and encyclopedias. The underlying assumption of those who set about the tasks is that all of human knowledge, in at least one area, can be contained within an ordered system of data that men can keep on a desk or on a shelf. And, of course, we see the ultimate expression of this Western optimism in the personal computer and the Internet, with their guiding idea that all knowledge can and should be available and at the finger tips of every citizen.
This then is the great achievement of the West--the systemization of knowledge. But the optimism that fueled this advance was the Judeo-Christian belief system as expressed in Genesis. This foundational myth of Western man posits that God is manlike but for the fact that he has an infinite capacity for knowledge and enjoys infinite life in which to develop that knowledge. Man's fall occurred when God realized that Man had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. And so God banished him from Eden before he could eat from the Tree of Life, whereupon he would have become like unto God. Western Man's dilemma then is that we have only a limited life span in which to develop our knowledge. so the entire project of Western Man can be seen to be the effort to pool and accumulate ever increasing amounts of knowledge until we too become God. All of the innovations above are simply steps on our path to this end. Language, written language, books, the scientific method, maps, dictionaries, encyclopedias, libraries, computers--all of these are the bricks in the new Tower of Babel bringing us closer to the day when we too will wield infinite knowledge.
So it is that an early map maker like Fra Mauro, cloistered within his cell, can take on such a heroic aura and his story can be so exciting. And here are some of the passages where Cowan develops some of these same ideas:
I see the world as a series of clues that somehow
explain the universe. Pachyderms and narwhals,
It led me to the idea of fashioning a map that would
defy every category and genre. It would be a
Mauro is visited by an elderly Jew of Rhodes, who
And lest I scare you into thinking that the whole thing is such flighty philosophizing, there are myriad fascinating and humorous asides like this one on the origin of the term navel gazing:
Focusing on the navel was an early Christian practice
devised by the hesychast monks of the Greek
or this one on the Mongol beverage called cosmos:
According to Fra Johannes, cosmos was made from mare's
milk in the following manner. A rope
The milk was later place in a large bladder or bag
and beaten with a hollow club whose head looked
And just in passing you come across such gem like sentences and ideas as this one: "Quitting the place that we love means that we are condemned to inhabit our loss forever."
I urge everyone to read and enjoy this book. The journal entry style makes it particularly susceptible to reading in separate nightly installments. It is a book that you can easily pick up and put down, as indeed you may wish to in order to savor the rich stew of ideas.
-Fra Mauro's Mappamundi (1459)
-REVIEW: (Between the Lines, The Australian)
-REVIEW: (Ann Skea, Eclectica Magazine)
-REVIEW: ( James Neal Webb, Book Page)
-REVIEW : of A Mapmaker's Dream (Wendy Cavenett, Between the Lines)
-REVIEW: The World Was His Cloister (DAVID GUY, NY Times Book Review)
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