Monday, August 31, 2009

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi

This is the expanded and revised edition, published in hardcover in 2000 -- it sat on my shelves for several years, and then I've been reading it, an entry here and there, for the past two years. (It was my bathroom book, actually -- I may have an odd sense of what makes a good bathroom book.)

Manguel and Guadalupi have combed the literature of dozens of countries and thousands of years to find thousands of countries, continents, and cities that only ever existed in imagination -- from Abaton to Zuy, from Narnia to Ruritania, from Lilliput to Utopia. Each place has an entry, with some fictional worlds -- such as those created by J.R.R. Tolkien, Tove Jansson, and Godfrey Sweven -- having many separate entries for different places, and others having only a single entry. The stories covered here run the gamut, from utopias to fantasies to travellers' tales, including many places that were originally intended to be believed along with the more fanciful locales.

It's all presented in a quiet gazetteer style, with some very deeply buried winking, but mostly presented straight, as if all of these places shared the same world. (In an introduction, Manguel notes that they chose only places that had a direct connection to the real Earth -- secret continents, lost lands, forgotten ancient legends, and even some portal fantasies like Narnia were included, but specifically alien worlds were not.)

Dictionary of Imaginary Places also has maps, as any self-respecting book of fantastic geography must. They're all excellent, and all in the same style, further adding to the sense that all of these lands are accessible from each other. Where else will you find a book with maps of Islandia, Arkham, Middle-earth, and Standard Island?

As I get older and grumpier, I find that I'm questioning the assumptions of the books I read more and more. (Though not my own assumptions, I'm sure.) And this book led to a lot of cranky internal dialogues, since it's packed with the utopian thought of several centuries -- a huge number of the societies depicted here seem to have started from a thought something like "Life would be just perfect if we could only stop the peasants from drinking and make them work even harder" or "wouldn't the world be so much better without all those lousy Protestants in it?" The utopias all seemed to me to be based on thoughts like that, on wanting to control humanity so tightly that finally everything would work out perfectly for once. Those do get tedious after a while, so I recommend reading this as I did -- a little bit a day over a long period of time, possibly then running off to read some of the primary sources as the interest strikes you.

But at least half of the places listed here have no connection at all to any utopian urge -- they were built for other reasons, as the background for a particular story, for plausible deniability, as part of an intellectual game, or just because. And Dictionary of Imaginary Places is a wonderful and unique reference work for the lands of the imagination; there's nothing else like it, and it does its work splendidly.

1 comment:

Jess Nevins said...

I have a problem with this book.

Several of the entries are entirely made up by Manguel & Guadalupi--they aren't based on existing books, but are entirely M&G's creation.

It's not a reliable reference work, in other words, and I wish it wouldn't be billed as such.

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