Illustration Friday: Obsession (with maps)

© 2011 Sylvia Liu
I'm not a super nostalgic person, and I don't sit around missing things like typewriters or rotary phones. One analog technology I do miss, however, is the old-fashioned map.

Growing up, any time my family or I would make a trip, I loved getting a map of the country or state we were visiting, pouring over it, and mapping out the trip. I was the designated map reader on family road trips because my mother and sister got carsick. I loved the concreteness of a physical representation of the land I was about to see. I loved putting pins in the cities or countries I'd visited. I loved randomly putting my finger on a spot and seeing what strange or banal name came up. I read atlases for fun. Maybe this is one reason I always enjoyed high fantasy novels; every one comes with an obligatory hand-drawn map.

Nowadays, of course, the GPS tells us where to go.  While we don't get lost, we often don't know where we are.  I turn left, I turn right. I miss a turn, but not to worry, Ms. GPS is "recalculating."

When I moved to Virginia Beach about five years ago, the best thing I did was buy a detailed map of the area. Instead of plugging in my coordinates, I found my way around town consulting the map. Seeing how the major roads meet up and figuring out my own alternate routes helped me construct a mental map of the area. At any moment, I like knowing which direction the beach is, where the Chesapeake Bay is, which way Norfolk or Chesapeake are. Now when I need to detour, I prefer to sniff out my route than turn on the GPS.

It seems there are others who also love maps too. Two fun sites I really enjoy are Strange Maps | Big Think (collection of real, strange, imaginary maps), and They Travel & Draw (illustrators travel and draw places around the world). The excellent website Brain Pickings also recently did a post on seven must-read books on maps. The explosion of infographics to explain everything from the history of science fiction to the financial crisis to world stereotypes (very un-PC but funny maps of Europe and other places according to stereotypes) shows that people still have an urge to represent their realities in concrete yet abstract ways.

So when was the last time you pulled out a paper map?

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  1. beautiful and original piece of work.. i like the mix of elements here

  2. Thanks, I appreciate the comment!

  3. What a wonderful post! I love maps too, but maybe even more than that, I love the thick, paperback, train schedule guide published by Japan Railways.

    When I was a child, my father would hand me the guide and challenge me to figure out the fastest (or cheapest, or shortest) route between two spots on the map. Not only did this appeal to my love of puzzles and adventure, it also trained me in reading the names of towns (written with complicated Chinese characters) and to make quick mathematical calculations. Now-a-days the Japan Railways website will figure it out all for you. That's that not nearly as much fun.

  4. Great image and post! I agree about maps! Technology isn't always an "improvement"- sometimes the old ways worked just fine!

  5. This really strikes a chord with me. Odd, because I'm severely directionally-challenged & make a terrible navigator-- not only do I lose track of where I'm going, but I tend to drift off into a daydream just when I need to watch those exit signs.

    Still, I love & respect maps aesthetically, (I use them often in my artwork) & I worry that depending entirely on GPS would diminish my already-shaky understanding of overall spacial relationships. Google Maps on the other hand adds a wonderful layer of topographical detail to the standard map format-- I find it hugely helpful in really understanding the space I'm covering.

    In sum, I'm grateful for the new technology because I need all the help I can get, but as usual I prefer to combine old & new!

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