Saturday, June 04, 2005

We Mapped Manhattan

IN 1857, members of the Philological Society of London proposed the creation of a dictionary built upon quotations contributed by readers. The Book Review's project to make a literary map of Manhattan was wildly more modest than the Oxford English Dictionary, but our reliance on reader submissions was as great, and our gratitude to participants as genuine. The response to our announcement on May 1 (''We'll Map Manhattan'') was both enthusiastic and far flung. Submissions arrived from across the country and around the world (Paris, Tampico, Singapore), from general readers, university departments (English, of course, but also German and forestry), and from the third-grade classes of Ms. Chapnick in Ardsley, N.Y., and Mrs. Rosee and Mrs. Absgarten in Scarsdale.

Celia Hartmann, a New Yorker, wrote in an e-mail message, ''I am obviously not the only one who walks around town with a world of fictional locations imprinted on top of the so-called real geography of the city.'' She suggested Jack Finney's novel ''Time and Again'' and E. L. Konigsburg's ''From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,'' as did enough other readers to make those books -- along with F. Scott Fitzgerald's ''Great Gatsby'' -- the three most frequently submitted. Also much cited were Caleb Carr and Lawrence Block. Some other books and authors we thought emblematic of New York went nearly unmentioned: only two readers proposed Jay McInerney's ''Bright Lights, Big City,'' about the number for Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories (for citations to these and more authors, see the expanded listings at

Mapmaking is a process of omission -- if it were not, a map of the United States would be 3,000 miles wide. Our design allowed the display of only 49 books, plus a very nice epigraph from Melville (with thanks to Rob Tally of Durham, N.C.). In deciding what to include, we wanted to represent many genres and many eras, and to be guided by reader preferences. The triage was painful, necessarily excluding many wonderful books and authors. But one pleasure of devising the map was discovering the personal connection readers often felt to the books they proposed. In an e-mail message, Bernie Lynch praised Paul Auster's ''Moon Palace'': ''The restaurant and the book both much loved. It was my neighborhood Chinese restaurant and helped me through my undergraduate years. Appreciated more for the waiters than the food but a wonderful communal atmosphere.''

Erin E. Foster enjoyed having lived in an apartment overlooking that of a character in Judy Blume's ''Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing'': ''If Peter were 10 years old when 'Tales' was published in 1972, he would have been in his 30's during my tenure on the block. I liked to think that he came back every once in a while . . . to visit his folks.''

Readers often displayed nimble analytical skill in discovering their favorite fictional addresses. Kim Herzinger drew on an intimate bond with the novel and the neighborhood to locate the 10th Street home of Clarissa Vaughan from ''The Hours,'' by Michael Cunningham (see Web map). Herzinger ''counted 72 steps from #10 to the corner of Fifth, but I am going to assume that Louis'' -- who had an affair with Clarissa's friend Richard -- ''is slightly shorter than I am.'' She eliminated one building because ''#12 (which is, however, handsomer than #10) is right next to #14 where Mark Twain once lived. Surely someone as literate as Clarissa would have mentioned she lived right next door to Twain's house.''

Some mysteries remain -- the apartment of J. D. Salinger's nomadic Glass family, who seem to move from East to West Side; the address of the Xenophon, where William Dean Howells's March family found a sublet in ''A Hazard of New Fortunes.'' Nor could we confidently pin down the office of Bartleby the Scrivener, despite many good suggestions from readers, including Ann Sullivan-Cross's. Having had a job at 14 Wall Street -- ''like working in a dead letter office, at the depths of a dark world governed by dark laws'' -- she felt sure she recognized the spot; she pointed out, moreover, that Melville's brother Allan had a law office at that address.

These readers see no impermeable boundary between the actual city and the city of the imagination. Meg Wolitzer, one of many writers who volunteered the home addresses of their characters -- we display some of them on the Web map -- expresses a similar idea from the author's perspective. Discussing the apartment at 16 Charles Street she found for the Castlemans in her novel ''The Wife,'' she writes, ''It's the weird thing about being a writer: a strong sense of specificity even though everything is made up.''

This articulates what could be our cartographic motto: a strong sense of specificity, even though everything is made up.

Randy Cohen writes ''The Ethicist'' for The Times Magazine.


We Mapped Manhattan - New York Times

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