• Real-World Geography: Rebecca Solnit

    Real-World Geography: How people use geography and the geographic perspective in their everyday lives and real-world careers.

    Illustration by Mary Crooks

    Mapping the Future
    I wanted to make maps exciting again and, maybe, launch a new era of mapping, Rebecca says. My goal wasnt really for people to say, Oh, these maps are so great. My goal was for people to say, I want to map my place.

    By Stuart Thornton

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    Rebecca is an author based in San Francisco, California. She has written 13 books, including 2004’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, which won a Book Critics Circle Award in criticism and a Lannan Literary Award.

    Rebecca’s latest book is 2010’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, a striking collection of 22 maps and 19 essays created by a team of 27 artists, writers, and cartographers led by Rebecca.


    Rebecca grew up in the Bay Area town of Novato, California, where she fell in love with geography even before she became interested in writing.

    “The geography actually comes first, although I just call it an interest in place, landscape, that kind of thing,” she says. “That was present as soon as I was old enough to explore the backyard.”

    At an early age, Rebecca also discovered books. “I was always pretty involved in stories and storytelling,” she says. “Then I learned how to read, my mom said, like the first few weeks of first grade. That sold me. I was going to be a writer. I was going to devote myself to making books.”

    Rebecca spent a lot of her time in the Novato Public Library. “The public librarians and the school librarians were incredibly encouraging,” she says. “I was like a weird, marginalized kid who lived in books. I read a young-adult novel every day for several years, so I was going through seven books a week.”

    After graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in English literature, Rebecca attended the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

    “By the time I was in my early 20s, I was publishing and really busy writing,” she says. “And that just never stopped.”


    “I love research. I think we don’t really talk enough about how research for journalists and historians is like being a detective. We get all excited about Sherlock Holmes on the trail, but some of the books I do, including the atlas, you are really a detective figuring out what really happened, where things really are, who really did what, what the social landscape was or the natural landscape was 100 years ago. And you see a picture . . . emerge from your work, and that’s exciting.”

    Rebecca also loves writing. “There’s this wonderful moment where suddenly you see the pattern, suddenly you see the meaning, suddenly you feel like you see into the heart of things,” she says. “That’s partly about doing beautiful things with language or finding the beautiful things language can do, the magic that language is. So words and meaning are waltzing together in this incredible way when it is working beautifully.”


    “It is really the administrating part of it. Writing is a pretty magical way to spend your life, but it’s also a small business I’m running out of my home.”


    “I once defined a place as a point of intersection of multiple forces and geography as a discipline in which multiple subjects intersect around the question of place. That’s what makes it one of the really exciting fields of our time.”


    Part of Rebecca’s research for Infinite City was poring over maps and atlases. “My real inspiration wasn’t books but maps,” she says. “I looked at maps, books of reproductions of maps, the wonderful David Rumsey collection of maps that is available online. Really the maps themselves suggested some of what maps could look like, some of what maps do.”

    With Infinite City, Rebecca hoped people would recognize that maps could be more than just navigational tools. “We have highway maps and cell phones and Google and Garmin devices,” she says. “There are certain things they can’t do—starting with make people happy because they are beautiful the way paper maps can.”

    Rebecca also hoped to convey the limitless possibilities of geographic places. “With the atlas, I wanted to make a proposal, which is that every place is infinite because an infinite number of versions of it exist for a town, a city, a region, etc.,” she says. “Because often we get a conventional map that will show highways or shopping, but you can also map butterfly species or romantic histories or violence or weather or pomegranate trees or Asian restaurants. . . . You can map it in any number of ways, which is a way of saying you can explore it in any number of ways. It’s really inexhaustible. You never completely know a place. It continues to change, and you can continue to explore it.”


    “I think that to be a writer you better love writing and you had better read a lot!”


    Rebecca says exploring and observing the world is important for budding writers and people interested in geography.

    “Just really start seeing that any moment in your life,” she says, “you are connected to dozens or hundreds of systems.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    administer Verb

    to oversee, manage, or be in charge of.

    atlas Noun

    a collection of maps.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atlas
    author Noun

    person who writes.

    Bay Area Noun

    region surrounding San Francisco Bay in the U.S. state of California.

    cartographer Noun

    person who makes maps.

    cell phone Noun

    device that uses radio signals to transmit and receive voice and other data.

    detective Noun

    person who investigates and obtains information about an activity or incident.

    device Noun

    tool or piece of machinery.

    discipline Verb

    to train or control.

    emerge Verb

    to develop or come into view.

    encourage Verb

    to inspire or support a person or idea.

    essay Noun

    short piece of prose, usually nonfiction and on a specific topic.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    historian Noun

    person who studies events and ideas of the past.

    infinite Adjective

    unlimited or boundless.

    intersect Verb

    to cross paths with.

    journalist Noun

    person who reports and distributes news.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    language Noun

    set of sounds, gestures, or symbols that allows people to communicate.

    library Noun

    place containing books and other media used for study, reference, and enjoyment.

    literature Noun

    written material, including novels, poetry, drama and history.

    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    marginalize Verb

    to reduce the significance or importance of something.

    navigation Noun

    art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.

    Encyclopedic Entry: navigation
    novel Noun

    fictional narrative or story.

    publish Verb

    to provide a written piece of work, such as a book or newspaper, for sale or distribution.

    research Noun

    scientific observations and investigation into a subject, usually following the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

    Sherlock Holmes Noun

    fictional detective created by the British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, introduced in 1887.

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