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  • Map memory from early childhood: the jagged outline of Treasure Island. A compass crowned with an ornate fleur-de-lis, pointing due north. Black lines radiating across parchment; roughly drawn hills; skulls and crossbones. Pirate treasure. My brother and I used to dig up the backyard with plastic shovels, looking for our share of loot. What did we know about the Caribbean? They might have buried it anywhere.

    The first maps most of us encountered were keys to a world of fantasy. Captain Flint’s led to a cache of gold and gems—but equally compelling were the maps that escorted us over the mountain ranges of Middle Earth, through The Phantom Tollbooth’s Land Beyond, and along Marco Polo’s route to the Court of Kublai Khan. There were the ones we followed closely, tracing the road from Center Munch to The Emerald City. Finally, there were maps that led to real and amazing destinations: the giraffes at the Zoo, or the Mad Hatter ride at Disneyland.

    Then came adulthood, and the necessity to navigate our own way through the world. Our relationships to maps reversed. Before, they’d been crude sketches of ideal, imaginary worlds. Suddenly, they were idealized portraits of sloppy reality.

    It was a difficult transition. I recall studying a map of Kolkata—a clean grid of meticulously ruled avenues and British place names—as our 747 descended toward the Indian metropolis. Leaving the airport was a rude awakening; nothing in that map had prepared me for the gnarled streets, riotous bazaars and sprawling slums of the city itself.

    At that moment, the words of semanticist Alfred Korzybski hit home: “The map is not the territory.” You can read all the how-to books you want, I realized, but you don’t know a thing about boxing until you’ve climbed into the ring.


    - abridged from Scratching the Surface
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