Reviewer David A. Taylor is the author of three books, including Ginseng, the Divine Root, winner of the 2007 Peace Corps Writers Award for Travel Writing, and Success: Stories, a fiction collection finalist in the Library of Virginia’s 2009 Literary Awards. His recent book is Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, selected as a Best Book of 2009 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He wrote and co-produced a documentary film of Soul of a People, nominated for a 2010 Writers’ Guild award.
Here David reviews Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World
Reviewed by David A. Taylor (Mauritania 1983–85)
In The Fourth Part of the World, Toby Lester (Yemen 1988-90) traces the history of our understanding of the terrestrial shape. Centered on one particular map from 1507 — the first map where the name “America” appears (beside a tiny ship furiously churning the sea) — Lester reaches back and forth in time, across all continents, to piece together the cartographic puzzle. The map offers a focus of a Western “collective quest for knowledge, power, and wealth the likes of which had never before been seen. That quest was at once mystical, rapacious, evangelical, self-centered, grand, inspiring, and often delusional — and nothing charts its full course better than the Waldseemüller map of 1507.”
There’s something else going on here too. After all, the cartographic story could be told much more succinctly than Fourth Part’s 400+ pages. But Lester takes his time to probe episodes of cultural contact, misunderstanding and miscues, from English medieval geographers to Marco Polo, as well as instances of heroic book collecting (see Petrarch painstakingly copying one of the few surviving copies of Ptolemy’s Geography). And there are many surprises. Who knew Boccaccio was a geographer too?
Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, writes vividly when he has a scene with boundaries, for example the room where the Waldseemüller map was discovered in the garret of a castle in Germany in 1901: “The garret is a simple room. It’s designed for storage, not show. Bookshelves line three of its walls, from floor to ceiling, and two windows let in a cheery amount of sunlight. The floors, uncarpeted, are lined with broad unfinished planks. Wandering about the room and peering at the spines of the books on the shelves, Fischer soon came across something that piqued his curiosity: a large folio with red beech-wood covers, bound together with finely tooled pigskin.” From that discovery, the rest of the book’s exploration unfolds.
But Lester also does well in tracing moments of disastrous cultural contact, the too-well-known (Columbus’s arrival on Hispaniola) and the mostly-forgotten (Louis de La Cerda in the Canary Islands, in 1341). In the latter episode, he glimpses seeds of a larger pattern:
It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the many dynamics at play in this little-known episode. With the financial backing of a king from the Iberian Peninsula, a maritime expedition led by Italian sailors sets off in search of islands rumored to exist somewhere out in the Atlantic. Guided by maps that contain a blend of the real and the imaginary, they find a series of islands, on which they encounter a pagan society previously unknown to Europe. They take prisoners, search for riches, loot and plunder, and finally return home, bearing samples of commercial goods, including human captives . . . Word of the islands spreads fast and reaches the pope, who considers himself empowered to grant ownership of them to whomever he sees fit — and who, when he does so, sets in motion a race among different Iberian monarchs to explore, exploit, and Christianize the region. These are the very dynamics, of course, that would assert themselves time and again in the Atlantic . . .
Lester is particularly careful to paint this story of discovery not simply as adventure or cartography, but as a continuous exploration to reconcile the ancient knowledge of Ptolemy and others with what Europeans were re-learning during the Renaissance. How did Ptolemy’s world correspond with the new horizons they were finding? In many cases, the effort to force new evidence into old wineskins was disastrous. Lester’s real heroes are the humanists who took notice of classical knowledge but also aimed to look anew — humanists like Roger Bacon, who noted, “All the sciences are connected . . . they lend each other material aid as parts of one great whole, each doing its own work, not for itself alone, but for the other parts.” And when one of their books disappears from view, that loss, too, registers in these pages.
So even when enthusiasm for a precise understanding of Martin Waldseemüller’s paper trail flags, this book’s adroit narrative, impressive range, and deft humor keeps a reader engaged. Lester’s book is a celebration of the rare instances where curiosity and persistence triumph, and monument to the more frequent tragic cases in which people force their experience of the world into the smaller vessels of their own prejudices. In containing both, The Fourth Part of the World does justice to the double-edged sword of knowledge and discovery.