Reading the city: literary maps

Literary mapping is quite a vogue.  The New York Times sparked off a storm of response to its request for readers’ suggestions to build a Literary Map of Manhattan in 2005.  The result was assembled by Randy Cohen and Nigel Holmes and shows “where imaginary New Yorkers lived, worked, played, drank, walked and looked at ducks.”

Edinburgh produced its own literary map in 2005 – shortly after it became the Unesco City of Literature.  As the website states, “The map was designed to give a taster of some of the city’s literary hotspots, and sparked debate about whether every single location of literary value should be marked and celebrated.”  As far as I’m aware, the jury is still out on this one.

London has its own literary map(s) of various kinds: one was assembled by the Booktrust in 2008, featuring Sarah Waters’ Nightwatch, Anthony Burgess A Dead Man in Deptford, Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and many others.

More recently, Istanbul also launched its own literary map project as part of its programme as 2010 European Capital of Culture.

The project of “Literary May in Istanbul” aims to create an inventory of literary personalities who have lived in Istanbul. The areas where these figures were born, raised or died in Istanbul will be determined, and signs and billboards providing information on authors and poets will be placed in these locations. Inquiries will be made as to whether the houses in which they lived have survived to this day, and signs will be placed on those buildings that are still standing.

Having just finished My Name is Red, I would love to see some of those places mapped out in the city.

Earlier this year the British Library held a wonderful exhibition of maps – unfortunately now finished, but the website is still up and running.  As well as a quite remarkable range of classical and medieval maps, one of the more bizarre additions was a map called The Island by Stephen Walter (2008) which

satirises the London-centric view of the English capital and its commuter towns as independent from the rest of the country. The artist, a Londoner with a love of his native city, offers up a huge range of local and personal information in words and symbols. Walter speaks in the dialect of today, focusing on what he deems interesting or mundane.

You can zoom into the map and read (at the risk of going cross-eyed) some of the extraordinarily varied captions and entries… just a few at random:

Braveheart executed here, Stormy Labour meetings, Beer explosion 1810, Mr Q woz ere, Hedge Funds central, [in Hyde Park] rich joggers, Tyburn Tree, Oliver Cromwell was disinterred and hung here…

wonderful stuff!

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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