The story opens with a closing and closes with an opening. The closing is the sale of the map of Martin Waldseemüller, “America’s birth certificate,” for $10 million to the Library of Congress. The opening is the illumination of a grave as you, the reader, turn on a light to read the sunken stone. In the space between these two moments, each centered on a thing displayed (a map on a wall, a body under your feet), the story of a third object emerges from amid the threads of the people, languages, relationships, wars, and seas with which it has been entangled for more than 400 years.
Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer (Bloomsbury, 2013) explores the secrets of a map in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. In a beautifully written historical mystery, Timothy Brook follows the map from its arrival at the Library after the death of a late owner, a scholar who helped found the field of international law and found himself jailed by two kings along the way. Brook takes us backward through the historical currents that informed the visible features of this map, those features including a compass rose, a gourd with Coleridgian resonances, a network of sea routes, a pair of Gobi Desert butterflies, and much more. As it changes hands among a host of characters that include a business man trading in cloves and pornography from Japan to England, an unlikely teacher and student of the Chinese language, Samuel Purchas of Purchas his Pilgrimage, and a trouble-making lawyer, the map traces a global history of the seagoing world before it comes to rest on a wall next to the flayed tattooed skin of a Pacific Islander, and ultimately on two library tables before the gaze of a curious historian. It is a wonderful story and a fascinating mystery.