Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, by Ken Jennings, Scribner, 2011
Beyond the anecdotal talk about geography bees and map collectors is an interesting overview of systematic travelers, place collectors and checklisters, such as the Travelers Century Club, High Pointers, roadgeeks, and the guy that visited 8,480 Starbucks in North America. The best parts of the book are the chapters that look at the info-spatial recreational activities that GPS and internet have enabled, like geocaching, and the Degree Confluence Project. Written by a Jeopardy champion, the book is peppered with historical references, factoids, as well as numerous thoughtful linkages, regarding the earth as a plaything, mostly.
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers who Created the American Superhighways, by Earl Swift, Houghton Mifflin, 2011
An accessible history of the people, politics, and process of building the Interstate system and the first transcontinental roads in the USA, starting with the often overlooked influence of Carl Fisher, the cyclist and racer from Indianapolis, who personally paid for some of the early roads in the west. These “good road” proponents, along with the driven federal road bureaucrats and engineers of the 1920s to 1950s–Thomas MacDonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads and his associates Herbert Fairbank and Frank Turner–are largely responsible for the way America looks today. Their story is ours.
Altered Landscapes: Photographs of a Changing Environment, Edited by Ann M. Wolfe, Rizzoli, 2011
The Nevada Museum of Art first published The Altered Landscape in 1999, and it altered the landscape of landscape photography. This new book, published in 2011, to accompany an epic exhibition, shows that the museum has been busy in the intervening years, acquiring images by dozens of contemporary photographers, such as Michael Light, David Maisel, Ed Burtynsky, Victoria Sambunaris, Robert Volt, and Kim Stringfellow. The book, much bolder than its early counterpart, is peppered with text and short essays, one of which asks, “At what point does it become redundant to refer to something as an altered landscape?” Indeed!
On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work, by Scott Huler, Rodale, 2010
The author examines the physical connections between his house in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the rest of the community and the landscape: where does the garbage go, how does the water come in and from where, how the sewer lines work, electricity, internet, land ownership, transportation–what is generally called “civil engineering” and infrastructure, but which is really the mechanics of our existence. This should be what everyone is required to learn in school, a new and relevant “home economics.”
Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, by Margaret Wertheim, Walker Press, 2011
When it comes to the more esoteric reaches of physical theory, most people defer to the established ideas of experts, like scientists or gods. Consensus reigns in this realm where the tiniest deviation can have cascading effects. This is hardly a favorable environment for diversity. New ideas are assailed, like white blood cells attacking bacteria. The few outsiders, people who become outspoken experts on their own theories, are generally worse than ignored. This book by the co-founder of the Institute For Figuring serves as a delicately curated and selectively porous membrane between the physics of the establishment and the rest of the world. Since most of us live in the rest of the world, I guess we are outsiders too.
Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation Over Public Space, by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht, MIT Press, 2009.
This academic book looks at sidewalks, the pedestrian connective tissue of urban space. It lays the groundwork for more accessible and compelling stories that will no doubt come in the future.
The Devil’s Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today, edited by Kate Gale and Veronique de Turenne, Red Hen Press, 2010
This refreshing and at times startling collection of place-based short tall tales of contemporary California is an articulate, idiosyncratic, and encyclopedic portrait of this idiosyncratic and encyclopedic state.
Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, by Stephen Graham, Verso Press, 2010
The scenario depicted here of the global military security state, its control-centered all-seeing eyes, and video-endgame preparedness, is apt and compelling, and leaves you feeling vanquished or strident, half empty or half full.
Geologic City: A Field Guide to the Geoarchitecture of New York, by Smudge Studio, 2011
A small and intriguing booklet describing twenty sites in New York City selected to represent different elements of terrestrial geologic time and space, from the inverted limestone quarry of Rockefeller Center, known as “The Rock,” to the mounds of Chilean salt barged in from South America to dissolve the city’s winter ice. More of this please!
Warhol’s Dream, by Saul Anton, JRP/Ringier & les Presses du Réel, 2007
A book-length rambling dialog between the artists Robert Smithson and Andy Warhol, as they amble around Manhattan. It, of course, is all made up by the author, Saul Anton, an art theory writer, and ends up being mostly about him, not the subject, like most fiction. But its an interesting exercise which does make you wonder what might have been said betwen these two different and not so different people.