Monday, September 30, 2013

Atlas Holds Steady

Let me just say, I am not the map guy.  Whatever the chromosome that makes a man love a map, I don't have.  I am not "the navigator" on road-trips, in fact, I don't even much like road-trips.  (I am not much of a traveller, come to that.  If I could fall asleep in my own bed and wake up next morning wherever it is I was going, that would be perfect.)

 I can appreciate that maps are beautiful objects, some of 'em, even most of them, but I do not share the aesthetic rapture that seems to put the light in some folks' eyes whenever they see brightly detailed geography laid out on a scientifically accurate grid.  (Had a friend, years ago, of a specially deliberative character, who spent the better part of a year deciding just exactly what would best suit the empty white walls of her new home.  She pondered and she shopped and she considered many, many options, from art to clocks, before she bought herself one great big map.  I had to agree, it looked good when she had it framed and finally put it up.  Nevertheless, I was pretty mystified by the whole process of decorating a room  so carefully as all that and then deciding on something so... colorful and frankly cold.  I mean, just how often would she need to locate Vladivostok before bedtime, bless her?)

Atlases I understand a bit better, as they are reference books, and I have the greatest respect for good reference.  An atlas, I confess, I've never owned.  I just have never needed to know the distance between Paris and Versailles. Perhaps I'm too trusting, but I just assume that Carlyle worked all that out for me before he sent the Sans-culottes down the road (or was it up?  No matter.)  I like the idea of an atlas.  I like the traditionally over-sized importance of them, as books.  I've rarely consulted one, or looked through one, unless someone else, a customer or coworker usually, asked me to.

 I have however happily sold atlases in every bookstore, new and used, where I've worked.  As reference books go, it has always been the atlases that seem to inspire the greatest admiration in the purchaser.  Someone setting about the business of buying an atlas usually has had something of the same heady anticipation with which people shop the travel guides, in combination with the full seriousness of the investor in real estate.  The people who tend to buy atlases, even the simplest student atlas, or an annual road atlas, tend to be the kind of bookstore people one looks forward to serving.  They usually know what they want, roughly, yet are open to suggestion and eager to get "the best."  They come in prepared to pay a fair price, but are always delighted to find a bargain.  They are book people.

I had thought the Internet would kill the atlas almost before it killed any other standard reference work, but I now think I was wrong about that.  In our house, I don't know that we would ever find our way to the multiplex now, let alone a doctor's appointment in a new clinic, without the lovely ladies at the other end of OnStar.  (We like that turn by turn security.)  The lovers of maps and atlases however, much as they might while away their evenings peering into their neighbor's backyard on Google Maps, seem to still want the full, weighty, totality of an atlas and the pleasurable puzzle of refolding a map.  As I've said, I don't have whatever that is, myself.  It may be an evolutionary advantage already being met by other means, new technologies and new digital interactions.  I wouldn't know.  It does hoever seem to be something lots of people, and not all of them grandparents, would seem inclined to pass on.

An atlas is, it seems, still a gift.

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