It’s fun to spend a few hours in the presence of an amateur geographer whose brain is crammed with birds and pop songs and bits of string. The end effect of Along Those Lines is of having dipped into a long-running notebook, a very pleasant one, from a person who would truly like to know how all the human systems work but has also accepted that perfect knowledge will never come. He’s going to do his best and not pretend to have all the answers. Cashwell doesn’t have a focused thesis about human territoriality. He wants us to open our eyes to borders, but he doesn’t tell us what to do about them. Just seeing them is enough, perhaps.
There’s a sort of comic, central irony to this book about borders, which is that it runs at a quick pace across disciplines—geography, science, art, and dozens more—chapter after chapter, stepping on everyone’s toes. The best part about being a writer is that you don’t have to gain permission to do meaningful work. (Of course if you do write something interesting people will come along to “discover” you, much as Columbus “discovered” America.)
The most useful reminder offered in the book is just how arbitrary our borders are. Pennsylvania was invented, not born unto the earth. Essays asking “can science fiction be literature?” as published several times per year in quality publications, always strikes me as like asking “can the Irish be white?” It’s a tasteless question, it misses the point, and it’s outmoded anyway.
And yet the boundaries between genres in particular were of great value to me when I was finding my own identity. When I was 16, the music I liked gave me instructions on how to live. It was industrial music, so the lessons tended to be along the lines of “sit in a parking lot nihilistically at midnight,” which I assiduously did. It gave me implicit guidelines on what to wear and how to cut my hair, and that in turn led me to find other people who had made the same choices, and thus I was able to find a tribe of similar nerdy semimisfits. And yet of course I didn’t just like one kind of music; I liked classic rock, and hip-hop, and R&B, and so forth. Those were the bridges to neighboring lands: the other kids on the bus, the other kids in other corners of the parking lot. If we could tolerate each other’s music, we could tolerate each other. There were always people who could cross the borders, sometimes to sell drugs, sometimes to date, sometimes just because their personality or family history gave them entrée to multiple quarters.
The fundamental tribal nature of the world seems to be immutable. We’re at the end of the World Cup right now, celebrated as the best example of “sportsmanship” (sorry, every woman) that can be mustered outside of the Olympics. The essential corruption of building a bunch of stadiums in Brazil is plastered over by spectacle. (Then again, it’s not like the United States declares war on poverty every time the NFL season starts.)
But here’s the thing: Our best globalized self really does consist of people wearing colors in a giant circle making primal chants en masse. We’re never going to get past this, are we?
And yet we don’t have a chance without borders. Living in New York City, I realized a fundamental truth about dense places: Wherever you are, someone else would like to be there. Someone wants your place in line at the post office, or to lean against the bar where you’re leaning. They want your apartment, your office, your seat on the subway. It can lead to a sense of gloom; it’s hard to look at a church in Brooklyn without contemplating the real-estate ravens that circle it, waiting for God to die so they can swoop down and turn it into condos. Or to walk into an open-plan office and realize that human beings have been reduced to a measure of square feet and some nostrums about “open communication.” A lore builds up, of secret bathrooms where you can be alone for a while behind a stall door that locks, of places that are quiet and empty on the weekends, of times to leave before traffic destroys everything, of places to cry. Anything for that moment of blissful untouched quiet, alone in a bathroom with no one touching your shoulder.
What this book confirms for me is that borders will always be a negotiation, something worthy of challenge and respect. Even the book itself is a kind of territory; it has a cover and a number of words, and the pages have edges. It belongs to a single author. And to his birds. “There are no lines,” he writes. “There are only places that people think lines should go.”
Along Those Lines: The Boundaries That Create Our World by Peter Cashwell. Paul Dry Books.