Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Imagining the Unimaginable: The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester

As I fall in sync with a group of rush hour commuters, walking along in our daily parade, I give little thought or consequence to the land beneath our feet. A patch of dirt here, an errant pebble there. Only when we hear of some distant earthquake, or put a porous shoe through an unexpected rain puddle, does the average urban pedestrian remark on the earth we trod upon – if, in a modern landscape of asphalt and concrete, any such earth remains on the surface at all. Even in the greenest rural pastures, rarely do we have cause to wonder: over what does this seemingly solid ground lie? And even when this question does arise, our satellite images, modern geological equipment and the apparent omnipotence of Google can render an answer in mere moments.

Of course, this wasn’t always so.

Simon Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World (HarperCollins, 2001) takes us back to the English countryside of the late 18th century, to a man who asked these questions without any such resources to satisfy his curiosity. William Smith, a young surveyor with a passion for history and scientific enquiry, took it upon himself to map the strata of rock beneath England on a scale never before conceived, and – according to Winchester – thus secured his place among the founders of geology.

Geologist William Smith
While fundamentally writing a historical biography, Winchester also recounts the development of this new science. To help us understand how geology developed in England, he takes us into the mindset of the culture at the time, showing how questioning the entrenched Biblical explanation of the world was considered both outlandish and dangerous. So for Smith to not only perceive a more ancient, unimagined history in the layers of rock beneath Somerset, but also to commit this vision to print such that others might see our world the same way, required a lifetime of singular purpose. Smith’s story depicts a man burdened by the intellectual climate of his homeland, yet determined to rise above it and leave his mark (even going so far as to chronicle an amateur autobiography, excerpts of which give Winchester’s recounting additional authenticity and colour).

Simon Winchester’s work appears as something of a mainstay in any bookshop biography section. From Krakatoa, his 2003 account of the explosion of the eponymous volcano, to perhaps his best known volume, The Professor and the Madman (titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne when it was first published in Britain in 1998), spotting one of Winchester’s books on the shelf feels like finding shepherd's pie on a menu: minor local variations aside, one can reasonably expect to be satisfied, but rarely blown away. Thus The Map that Changed the World both benefits and suffers from Winchester’s consistency of style. His diction, while varied and highly intellectual, may alienate the average reading public; although it didn’t seem to stop him from reaching bestseller lists a second time running. Perhaps with this in mind, Winchester includes a helpful glossary, as well as suggestions for further reading. Though thoroughly researched, the prose occasionally feels repetitious, with certain information repeated almost verbatim in back to back paragraphs. Much like his subject, Winchester studied geology and worked in mining, allowing for him to bring even greater authority to this particular work. As a result, the passion and expertise he brings to his topic makes these stylistic stumbles frustrating, but forgivable.

The map that changed the world
Rather than centring on a single historic event – and thus jumping between several different historical characters – The Map that Changed the World stays focused on Smith's trials, resulting in a more effectively involving and personal narrative than some of Winchester’s other works. Occasionally, however, this backfires: Winchester’s lofty language does not stop him from beating the reader quite thoroughly over the head with his thesis at points, usually consenting to mention other important figures in geological history only tangentially. Winchester also makes highly localized references to English locales and culture, which those of us less familiar with the regions may find more bemusing than enlightening. Still, the intrigue of Smith’s adventure, and Winchester’s effective meshing of modern science with exploration and history, make this a journey worth finishing.

Fitting for a work about a map, the book also includes some lovely, simple illustrations, which for the most part compliment the text rather than distract from it. Each chapter begins with a labelled fossil, such as Smith may have discovered in his travels. Additional images of the vistas that inspired Smith might have been nice, but Winchester’s effective verbal depictions ultimately render them unnecessary.

The Map that Changed the World, while not a life-changing read to those of us familiar with modern geology, still succeeds in putting a human face to the discovery of a worldview many of us take for granted. By bringing to light the overlooked tale of William Smith’s unusual map, Winchester reminds us how hard-won much of our present day knowledge remains, and gives us reason enough to remember both the years and miles of history on which we all stand.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

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