Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Books and challenge and distance, oh my!

I've been reading The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime for about two years now.  It's not such a long book, and it's not uninteresting; it just keeps getting set aside for other things.  Just as Born to Run was a story about running that ranged across real-life characters and countries, The Island of Lost Maps tells not just the story of one, very prolific, map thief, but of maps and history and people across the world.  So, yes, it's a good book, but that's not why I bring it up.

Last night, some quotes from the book struck me.

Harvey discusses the impact and importance of maps throughout history and the way that they helped lead to the discovery of the New World.  During the Age of Discovery, the world seemed such a big place.  There were so many unknowns...so many blank spots on the map.  And then, Harvey writes,

The world started getting smaller again.  In The Human Condition, Arendt described "the shrinkage of space and the abolition of distance through railroads, steamships, and airplanes." (129)
And isn't that true? Sometimes I am amazed now at the thought that my drive to work, 35 minutes or so every day, would have been a journey during earlier days.  My class talked about that as we read Little House in the Big Wood; the Ingalls girls rarely saw anyone else, a trip to town was a once a year treat, while we think little of taking a plane across the country.

In addition to transportation, technology has managed to shrink the distances between us as well.  Harvey quotes The Death of Distance:

Geography, borders, time zones--all are rapidly becoming irrelevant...courtesy of the communications revolution.
How many friends do you have outside of your town? If you're like me, more than the number in your town. My kids barely even know what long-distance telephone rates are. We can video chat on our cell phones (well, we can't, but people do). This has been such a huge change just in my lifetime. A cousin of my husband served in the first Gulf War and had very limited communication with his family back home. My brother has been to Iraq twice, and we regularly heard from him.

He goes on to say
As I was reading [this], it occurred to me that there are now two types of adventurers.  The old breed--the kind who once slogged forth into the great unknown, back when there was enough unknown left to accurately describe it as "great"--is an endangered species, and not a happy one, either.  The old breed does not want to be part of the main.  It years for islands.  It feels grounded in the global village.  As the mountain climber Gaston Rebuffat once put it, "In this modern age, very little remains that is real: night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind, and the stars." And so the old breed finds itself jammed into the last fragments of true man versus nature wilderness, adventure ghettos like Mount Everest.

The new breed talks much the same game as the old, appropriating Age of Discovery language to describe Age of Information concepts (Netscape Navigator [clearly this edition is from 2001 since there's not much talk of Netscape Navigator these days], Microsoft Explorer). But the similarities end there.  The new breed has no need for physical wilderness.  It celebrates the fact that, as Rebuffat puts it, very little remains that is real.  The new breed dances on the grave of poor old Distance, believing that in cyberspace all vistas are endless.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt, one of the last great icons of the old breed, argued that the adventurer's heart "must thrill for the saddle and not the hearthstone." At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the new breed of adventurer must thrill only for the placid glow of a computer screen.

I thought the whole passage was interesting, but I think endurance athletes are reclaiming Distance from the grave.  The world may feel smaller until you run that mile instead of driving it.  One hundred miles isn't a big deal in a car, but it's a pretty significant number on a bike...and it's really something when you're running it.  Referencing the Rebuffet quote above, night and cold and wind can be banished, but many of us choose to go out and experience them.  There are many places I'd love to visit, but I can certainly find adventure and challenge right around where I live.  And as I realize once again that the world is bigger and more impressive than it might seem from the seat of a car, I'm learning that I am, too.

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