Siri, where am I?

July 10, 2014
(Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) (Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Now that we all carry around constantly updating, infinitely detailed maps on our smartphones, the world should feel small and brightly lit, right?

Not so, says Alastair Bonnett, a “psychogeographer” at Newcastle University, which is somewhere off to our right. He’s just published a delightfully quirky book called “Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies” (HMH, $25). In dozens of short entries, he describes “floating islands, dead cities, and hidden kingdoms.”

Beware: This is no Carnival Cruise. “Authentic topophilia can never be satisfied with a diet of sunny villages,” Bonnett writes. “The most fascinating places are often also the most disturbing, entrapping, and appalling.”

I corresponded with him via e-mail.

Has technology denied us the special pleasure of getting lost?

We are all cartographic obsessives these days. It’s great in some ways, but it also feeds into the unhealthy situation in which if we don’t know exactly where we are and where everything else is in relationship to us, we start prodding our screens and thinking something is amiss. This is profoundly disempowering, for it suggests that without constant expert advice, we would all be driving in circles or off cliffs. So for me, it’s not so much about the pleasures of getting lost, it’s more about finding the confidence to know that we can find our own way and that the pleasures of travel — and of serendipity — can’t be uploaded.

(Photo credit Louis Holland. Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) (Photo credit Louis Holland. Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

It’s easy to imagine that there are no more places left on earth to be discovered.

Ever since the photographs from Apollo 17 of the “blue marble” back in 1972, we’ve lived with the sense that the whole world is fully known. Actually, people have been saying this for some time: It was back in 1887 that the éminence grise of British Geography, Halford Mackinder, claimed, “We are near the end of the roll of great discoveries.” However, exploration is far from dead. There are vast landscapes under the sea and under the polar ice that have yet to be mapped in any detail. Also, surprises do turn up on land. It was only this April that Leeds University [Britain] scientists confirmed the existence of a peat bog the size of England in a remote region of the Congo Republic. And let’s not forget that plenty of the world isn’t subject to the kind of high-res imagery found in the U.S.A.. I guess that’s also why mass kidnappings can take place in Africa and the victims not be found.

I love the way your book makes us think of overlooked areas — the LAX parking lot, for instance — as actual, distinct places.

Places that are lost in the fabric of the modern city fascinate me because they are so stoical: They seem to say, “Even here we can make a place.” A place is somewhere distinct, with its own story and its own identity. I think that speaks of the way place-loving and place-making is fundamental to what we are, and the way our identity is tied up with place. I end the book with children’s places, and I think it’s important to know that one of our earliest activities is to make places, which we might call “dens” or “camps.”

Can any of us be an explorer?

We have to change our view of what “exploration” is. These days it is more likely to be found in taking a journey into the ruins of Detroit than in traveling to Thailand; more likely to be found around the corner or under our feet than in more expected places. This is why I take such inspiration from today’s “urban explorers” — people who explore the hidden parts of the city at night, who are trying to enliven our geographical imaginations.

Are there any places you’ve been trying to reach but so far haven’t been able to?

Plenty! Just three off the top of my head:

  1. The lost gulags of Siberia, camps in the forests that are apparently still there but too remote for any verification.
  2. The guano islands claimed by the U.S. under the Guano Islands Act. I’m intrigued by the cycles of interest and abandonment that they evoke.
  3. The “Dau” film set in Ukraine that was so realistic that it turned into a real town with a trapped population of actors. The film was due out 2014, and the release keeps getting postponed.

(This interview has been edited for space and clarity.)

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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