The Fourth Part of the World
The bizarre story of how the planet Earth came to be represented on paper.
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This worldview, of course, couldn’t last. Europeans – troubled by Mongol invasions, irked that blessed Jerusalem was in the hands of Muslim infidels, and desperate to exchange goods and human flesh for filthy lucre – were seduced by modernity. “The Waldseemuller map appeared on the scene at a time of convulsive social and intellectual change,” Lester writes. “Serendipitously, implausibly, indelibly, the map captured a new worldview as it was coming in to being – and that worldview, of course, is our own.” The heretofore unknown fourth part of the world wasn’t heaven, and wasn’t hell, but something much more interesting – an enormous, unspoiled continent whose natural resources could be exploited and whose natives could be converted, sold into slavery, or exterminated. Like any train wreck, the controversies of this historical moment fascinate: how Vasco de Gama’s heroic rounding of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope overshadowed Christopher Columbus’s discovery of a Western “Earthly Paradise”; whether Amerigo Vespucci, who first reached the American mainland, is properly credited with its discovery; how Columbus (oh poor, unlucky Columbus!) died without finding a Western passage to India.Skip to next paragraph
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But “The Fourth Part of the World” transcends mere cartographical melodrama. Maps – intricate, absurd, fantastical, ridiculous – fill this beautiful book, reinforcing Lester’s thesis that they tell us as much about their makers as our surroundings. “What the map charts is nothing less ... than the contours of the human experience itself,” Lester writes. “The never-ending attempt to imagine a place for ourselves in the world.” Whether a primitive “T-O” globe sitting in the hand of a Holy Roman emperor or a meteorological chart analyzed by a local TV weatherman, maps detail what is important to the society that generates them.
Who knows how absurd the US Geographical Survey will look five hundred years in the future? The world is, after all, 70 percent water, and we know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about ... well ... the moon.