Archive for September, 2015

Ptolemy’s map of the world. Sort of.

I used to wonder why books lightly touching on the history of cartography often resort to using the above image as “Ptolemy’s map of the world.” Claudius Ptolemy lived during the second century AD; the map that demonstrates his work obviously comes from the Renaissance (1482, to be exact). Surely reproductions existed from manuscripts closer to Ptolemy’s time? Most reference works I came across, like encyclopaedias and high school textbooks, don’t explain the stylistic mismatch or even credit the source of the image at all.



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In the 1967 introduction to The Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Louis Borges and Margarita Guerrero make a suggestion on how to approach the text:

Like all miscellanies…The Book of Imaginary Beings has not been written for consecutive reading. Our wish would be that the curious dip into it from time to time in much the way one visits the changing forms revealed by a kaleidoscope. (xv)

I didn’t follow this ideal reading pattern, instead diving in from cover to cover through 116 different beasts that were either once believed to exist or wholly imagined. While a straight reading defeats the purpose of a miscellany, in a sense, it does give you a feel for the motivations behind arranging such a collection. Borges and Guerrero were assembling a wonder book in a world rapidly lacking in wonders of the imaginative sense. In this, The Book of Imaginary Beings shares the fundamental driving force behind wonder books of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However, while these earlier European authors were intent on eliciting wonder at God’s creation, this collection looks to elicit wonder at the creations of the human imagination throughout the ages. (more…)

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