A few days ago I watched a video from the Jimmy Kimmel TV show that really jolted me. In a typical “man on the street” setup, passers-by were asked to identify a country on a world map. They could identify any country—the U.S., China, England—any one they chose. One by one the viewers failed the test. A few identified Africa as a country, but couldn’t find any country on the continent. At last a boy, who looked as though he might have been in fifth or sixth grade, was asked and he swiftly identified the U.S., Mexico, and a string of countries in South America.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how these people ever followed the news about world events. Hearing news about Syria without having any idea where Syria is would certainly not help anyone understand what is going on in the Middle East. With Google earth and all the digital maps available why are people so geographically illiterate?
Making maps is something people have been doing for thousands of years. As knowledge about the world grew, people were able to visualize how the known world was laid out. Instead of being limited to the small area in which they were born and raised, seamen and warriors were empowered to explore larger and larger swaths of the world.
One important mapmaker, although little known, was Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who mapped much of the Middle East for the British Army in the early years of the 20th century. I wrote a blog piece about her back in 2014 after I had read and been fascinated by her biography. Her work was important in shaping the boundaries of the current countries in that area—for better and for worse. Understanding how modern boundaries came into being can help us see how conflict in the area became almost inevitable.
Maps and globes are important in shaping how we see the world. More than ten years ago when I visited Cape Town, South Africa, I saw an art exhibit called Perspectives on Africa. The exhibit was designed to show how differently Africa was viewed by various groups of people. One installation included three world globes hung in different ways—one in the conventional way with the North Pole at the top; the next swung from two points on the equator; and the third with the South Pole at the top. The artist made the point that the conventional way we hang the globe is no more sensible than several other ways. I’ve never forgotten how surprising the “upside-down” globe looked to me. It gave me a new perspective on the southern hemisphere.
I am not sure how geography is taught in the schools today, but I am often astonished at the limited knowledge many Americans have of the world outside our borders. Perhaps we should ask teachers to post a large map of the world on the wall of every classroom and a globe in every library. Many children learn about maps by looking at the tiny screen of a phone. Seeing the larger picture day after day might broaden their horizons and encourage them to notice that while Google maps are great for planning trips, they offer only a tiny picture of the world around us. Even now in the 21st century, Google does not rule the world!
Sometimes I need a change from the present day with its endless news—endless recycling of stories that make me sad or mad or both. That’s when I lose myself in reading about the past. For the last week or so I’ve been reading a new biography of Edward Lear. Remember him? He was the author of children’s verse such as
The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
Even more famous are his limericks, which have become almost as familiar as Mother Goose rhymes.
Like most people I had no idea that Lear was not primarily a poet, but rather a respected painter specializing in birds and landscapes. That was how he made his living and the reason why he traveled ceaselessly around Europe and the Middle East. I learned all this from a sparkling new biography by Jenny Unglow called Mr. Lear; a Life of Art and Nonsense.
During the past two weeks I’ve spent much of my spare time dipping into Edward Lear’s remarkable life. Unglow makes his life memorable by describing his unusual family life—he was the 13th of 14 (or possibly more) children and was raised primarily by an older sister because his mother couldn’t cope with all the babies.
Born in 1812, Lear was able to take advantage of the speedy travel made possible by the spread of trains across Great Britain and most of Europe and the steamships that took him to Greece, Malta and Sicily. His network of friends gave him companionship when he was in foreign lands. Although not an aristocrat, he found patrons among wealthy families who valued his pictures and enjoyed his cheerful company and his way with children. He was welcomed everywhere he went.
Certainly his life wasn’t easy. He suffered from a range of ailments including epileptic attacks as well as episodes of depression. He longed for the stability of marriage and family life, but his emotions centered on men and he never found a way of balancing his desires with the rules of Victorian society. Still, he maintained his friendships and found satisfaction in his work, although like all of us he often complained of overwork.
The past was not a happy place, and I wouldn’t want to live there, but visiting it now and then is refreshing. I urge you to read Jenny Unglow’s book, which is available now in libraries and bookstores as well as on Amazon.com.
People have lived through worse times than those we are going through today. Reading and writing about them today gives me perspective on the life and times of the 21st century. That is why I have set my Charlotte Edgerton mystery stories in the 1840s, a tumultuous period in both Europe and America. Charlotte Edgerton and her friends lived through many of the same events that Edward Lear did.
Later this month, the fourth Charlotte Edgerton mystery Death Enters the Convent will be published. I’ll write more about that in my next post.