Tuesday, 26 February 2002

Mapping the world

Listening to:

Beethoven, Grosse Fuge, op. 133 in B flat. This is easily the most difficult music of Beethoven’s that I’ve ever heard. It was originally intended to be the final movement of his string quartet op. 130 in B flat, but when it was first performed people complained that it was too long in comparison to the rest of the quartet. In my recording, it’s almost 19 minutes long, while the first movement is 14 minutes, and all the others are less than 10 minutes long (two are less than five).

The difficulty probably stems from the fact that it is a fugue, with multiple lines happening all at once. I guess I don’t listen to it often enough to have become entirely familiar with it. It’s pretty fierce stuff, on the whole.

Just read:

Peter Whitfield, Mapping the world: a history of exploration.

This is a revised edition of a book written for the British Library with earlier title New found lands: maps in the history of exploration. It’s one of the Folio Society’s special presentation volume freebies, which means that it’s big (30cm) with lots of nice plates, mainly of maps, but also of various other prints. These are very nice, but the text is also very good.

The book summarises the history of European exploration, starting the main text with the Portugese expansion along the west coast of Africa, and then getting onto the Americas, the Pacific, Australia and the polar regions. Before the main text there is a brief introduction explaining why earlier and other foreign exploration was qualitatively different from the sort of thing done by the Europeans. For example, the Polynesians did a pretty good job of spreading themselves across the Pacific (an ocean whose vastness Whitfield is expressive about). Nevertheless, they never maintained any centralised repository of knowledge about the discoveries that were being made. (Nor, being pre-literate, would this have been an easy thing to do.) In contrast, people with the maps back in Lisbon really did see their net knowledge of the world increase.

Though the book is not too long, it is pretty comprehensive, with good discussions of every continent and the explorers who went there. I enjoyed it. There are a couple of subjects it doesn’t touch on (though I’d have been interested to read about them): the mapping of home territories and how this improved (being a book about exploration, this is a pretty reasonable omission), and also a little more about technology. For example, Mercator is mentioned, but his projection is not.

Now reading:

Granta 71: shrinks.