Literature tips: How we “made the world beautiful” for ourselves – with maps and spices

In the beginning there was the idea.

Literature tips: How we “made the world beautiful” for ourselves – with maps and spices

In the beginning there was the idea. Our idea of ​​the world. We know exactly what the Earth looks like and how it came to be what we see today. With two new releases this fall, Haupt Verlag is shedding light on the darkness of our firm convictions.

Because history, even if we always treat it like absolute knowledge, was and is written by the victors and conquerors - and the same applies to geography to an astonishing extent. The education about colonialism, its consequences and the immense gaps in our school textbooks have so far been able to shift the focus piecemeal and sometimes create new ambivalences. So it's all the more exciting to delve into two works that trace our paths through and across this world based on rather "innocuous" factual topics. And our earth-transforming power, whether for profit, progress or destruction.

“Maps that changed the world” is what Philip Parker calls his volume about atlases and globes from early times to the digital maps on our smartphones – and with this title he gets to the heart of the matter: Since its beginnings, the world has not only been measured for the sake of knowledge to record travel and trade routes and to provide astronomical guidance. Maps were also intended to mark regions of rule and power and were used for historical interpretation and even religious location. Parker illustrates this with numerous examples that contain a number of surprises and allow us to look at current debates in a different way.

The current practice of north-oriented maps comes from Arabic cartography, while the European tradition usually placed the east at the top. Not without mentioning the Garden of Eden or other mythical places - an image of the world was and is always an image of what is important to those who measure it, those who commission and use the maps. Science, as it becomes clear when tracing all the routes across land and oceans, is not absolute, it is subject to error and experimentation and learns from it. How can a three-dimensional world be represented on two-dimensional surfaces? What distortion must be chosen for this and how can this be made clear in order to achieve the most accurate image possible and to understand that what is depicted is at the same time only an approximation? That the gaps in our knowledge are always larger than we assume. That others may have already mapped what we are just discovering - just as Korean maps depicted details of the African east coast in the Middle Ages, when Europeans were still trying to get an overview.

Parker takes us on a journey through his immense knowledge of atlas making methods from ancient times to the present day; He introduces us to people who permanently changed surveying and cartography, tells world history in a new way using maps that appear to be upside down or rotating, crossed by caravans that illustrate and link historical events and the... omit or emphasize things according to focus. He shows us how medical topography helped track and combat a cholera epidemic in Scotland and London in the 19th century, and sociodemographic maps such as the Poverty Atlas make problems more clearly visible and treatable.

“Maps that Changed the World” is a weighty volume that is best read in stages rather than in one sitting. Complemented by the rich selection of illustrations and maps from all eras, it offers extremely stimulating reading: Parker peppers his descriptions with numerous anecdotes and refreshing language, which in passing creates aha effects about the origin of seemingly common terms and the vocabulary of the reader expanded with beautiful, almost forgotten expressions. The latter can certainly be attributed at least as much to the translator Susanne Schmidt-Wussow, whose impressive achievement must definitely be acknowledged here.

Of course, military, imperial, nationalist and colonial purposes also drove cartography. And above all, commercial interests. Thomas Reinertsen Berg writes about “pleasure, greed and globalization” in his “History of Spices,” which undertakes a similar world trip with a different focus. Pepper, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon are an integral part of our kitchen today - but their journey to us is as exciting as it is painful.

In an anecdotal, slightly meandering style, Reinertsen Berg tells of Chinese poets, Egyptian-Greek traders and archaeologists from Italy and the USA who traced and witnessed a trail of rare spices over the centuries. He introduces the plants themselves and, in poems, letters and illustrations, lets us taste in a new way the fascination that their fruits, flower buds and seeds have always had on people - and feel the fragility of their living conditions, because many of these plants only thrive when they are whole certain soils and under certain climatic conditions.

For example, nutmeg was only available on the Banda Islands, and early on, Asian and European powers began to seek out these islands and add them to their own spheres of influence. Where previously peaceful trade based on trust had flourished and wild trees were harvested as needed, extensive plantations and monocultures emerged. The inhabitants of the regions went from trading partners to dependent workers or adversaries. Or even the goods yourself.

The fight for the colonial division of the world was not only led by the West. Egypt and Oman also took part and secured land and trade routes for spices and the slave trade in the South Seas and East Africa. In the hunt for rare plants and raw materials, European powers conquered the Spice Islands and other fertile regions, waged wars in foreign oceans, subjugated local populations to the point of genocide and, in many places, destroyed the nature from which they wanted to profit. The cycle of overproduction and artificial scarcity to regulate prices is centuries old and has left deep marks on the landscapes of the spice regions.

What Reinertsen Berg began with an almost fairytale-like description of the creation of volcanic islands and cinnamon cassia forests, he ends with the question of ways to achieve fair trade. Because well-traveled spices are no longer a status symbol, but are affordable for each of us. But the downside of this democratization of consumption in Europe is, as is so often the case, production methods in the regions of origin that generate low prices with weak labor rights and environmentally harmful agricultural methods. At the same time, the islands are particularly at risk: sea levels in Asia are rising faster than the world average. The connection between “pleasure, greed and globalization” is a historical phenomenon as well as a very current question regarding our consumer behavior.

Despite all this, “The History of Spices” does not neglect the enjoyment. The book is lovingly designed with a diverse selection of illustrations and facsimiles that underline various cultural, biological, culinary and historical references to the search and addiction for spices. The reviewer's reading pleasure was only marred by the author's somewhat meandering style, which made it a little difficult to follow some of the narrative threads. Here, as well as with regard to syntax and grammar, the book would have benefited from proofreading, which the publisher decided not to do for inexplicable reasons and with noticeable consequences.

As different as the common threads are, the two volumes are similar in their broad perspective and narrative styles, which guide the reader across eras in an entertaining and informative way by combining the anecdotal with the historical and scientific and thereby collecting a great deal of detailed knowledge. What they also have in common is that the importance of those who support authors behind the scenes is particularly visible here, be it in the noticeable lack of editing or in an excellent translation. Last but not least, both benefit from a great selection of images and very attractive design – a specialty of Haupt Verlag.

The books are recommended for anyone who is curious and wants complex suggestions. And everyone who is still looking for a gift. After all, the season for cinnamon and cloves is just beginning. A season in which we hopefully also have time to look at the world and our images of it with new eyes.

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