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A mysterious map, an inquisitive historian: Timothy Brook’s delightful read

The hard-boiled, whodunnit fedora is a hat Timothy Brook takes on and off as it suits the narrative.

Mr. Selden’s Map of China
Timothy Brook
House of Anansi Press

In this book's final chapter, five distinct secrets are revealed about the most unique and advanced map of China ever produced by a 17th-century cartographer. The cartographer in question is an unknown man from the region. The map itself is created with an unorthodox mixture of pan-global methods; it is precise, seemingly beyond its era's capabilities, and it is aesthetically and conceptually adventurous (a "mindscape") in ways that propel Timothy Brook, one of the world's foremost scholars of China and the author of numerous historical books, on a circuitous course toward some of the answers to his questions about its origins.

The hard-boiled, whodunit fedora is a hat Brook takes on and off as it suits the narrative, and it's one of many hats. Brook is a true practitioner of the broad, rich and currently endangered concept of the humanities. There are as many quotes from English and Chinese poems of the age as there are harrowing stories of freebooters ("the gentlemanly term for pirates"). It's a polymath style in the spirit of the book's protagonist, John Selden, the 17th-century British owner and original archivist of the map in question. Selden, we learn, was a mediocre poet, an outlaw activist for citizen's rights over church and state, Britain's first Orientalist scholar, a brilliant lawyer and the author of one of the two books on which international maritime law can still be claimed to be based, The Closed Sea. Five distinct secrets are revealed about the mystery map, but anticlimactically. They take a back seat to the fascinating details and dramatic character portraits en route.

Brook's previous book, Vermeer's Hat, cleverly uses the occasion of five of the Dutch painter's works to trace the stories of household objects across the first global economic age. I emphasize the word "occasion" because the windows of those Dutch interiors look so far out to the history of trade in furs, tobacco, etc., that Brook's routes back to the paintings themselves are at times more of a structural formality than a narrative necessity. Mr. Selden's Map of China travels the same distances, and it makes the same kinds of adventuresome side trips: stories about the introduction of Eastern pornographic material to London, about the first Chinese man to visit Britain and interpret the text of the map about two decades after it was archived, an account of the intellectual sparring between Selden and Dutch firebrand Huig de Groot over the rights of individual nations to control the open seas.

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But all of these excursions illuminate something about this single object, the Selden map, even as they spring from it. This focal point makes the book more cumulatively resonant and easier to follow than its predecessor. And like any good historical account, it casts an eye toward our age: "The traders and sailors travelling across the surface of the Selden map were simply in it for the money and thought no more about it. Curious that a desire so uninteresting could remake the world." It is also a paean to the necessity of preserving historical documents in the musty, hands-on libraries that made Brook's own encounter with this map possible.

A variety of effective pins are employed to anchor the reader to the Selden map as he circles its wider implications. Modern-day fighter pilot Lieutenant Commander Wang Wei falls to his death into the part of the South China Sea "coincidentally" at the centre of the Selden map. Readers are asked early on to put a "virtual pin" on the insert photograph of the map and to circle outward from this same point. Later, our attention is brought to an abraded area on the map, where Selden may have repeatedly rested his thumb while describing the Dutch seizure of the Portuguese Santa Catarina to his friends.

And the compass rose, a detail of the map that had never been used before in Chinese cartography, is the focal point of the most fluid and wide-reaching of the book's chapters, a section strategically positioned midway through our journey. The chapter reads like a perfect day at the library, tracing interlocking histories as the compass rose becomes the book's central metaphor. After evoking the lines of one of Selden's pals, poet Ben Jonson, Timothy Brook – sails out, winds up – closes this chapter with a note about our mysterious cartographer, an observation that scans as perfectly as any of the verse sampled throughout: "… he drew the routes of merchant ships over the moving face of the sea."

Nick Thran's most recent book, Earworm, won the 2012 Trillium Book Award for Poetry.

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