My Review of The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester ran today at PopMatters.
Though the subtitle says this book is about the map that gave America its name, it’s about much more than that. Lester uses that map (really, the entire history of cartography up to the creation of the 1507 Waldseemuller Map) to tell the story of the Age of Exploration and all it entails. It’s an excellent book. I always love reading about a time when there were still undiscovered countries and unknown lands on the Earth, and Lester helps the reader see the world as it was in those times, vague, hazy, and fantastical.
He also manages to show that a lot of what we think we know about what they knew about their world is wrong.
Christopher Columbus is often depicted as a forward-thinking explorer who maintained that the world was round despite the scorn of the European establishment, who believed it was flat. Nothing could be further from the truth. That the Earth was spherical was widely accepted in Columbus’ time, and had been relatively common knowledge since antiquity. Columbus did, however, endure the scorn of his contemporaries, because his calculations about the size of the world, and by extension, his projections on how long it would take to reach India traveling westward, were way off base. And everybody knew it but him.
Enough Columbus bashing. The Fourth Part of the World covers a lot of ground. It’s a story of adventures in both the old and new worlds, of politics, of the rise of humanism and rational thought and its effect on innovation. And it’s a story about maps and how they both portray and shape the world as we know it.