There’s an old joke, it’s attributed to Emo Philips, it goes:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.”
I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “A Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
He said, “Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
Which is a perfect illustration of the Freudian concept of the narcissism of small differences, which is borrowed from the British anthropologist Ernest Crawley. The closer the territories, the more there is to fight over; the smaller the stakes, the more vicious the battles. Watching the internecine warfare inside of an English department, or within a political party, it doesn’t take long to see why borders arise, invisible or otherwise.
Most people assume that there is wisdom in boundaries. They see a line and steer clear, whether it’s a border fence between countries or the divide between genders. Universities are divided into colleges with departments. Our cultural critics debate what’s literature and what’s not; our pundits draw bright lines between their ideas and their opponents’.
In Along Those Lines, Peter Cashwell is not exactly here to smash through all that. He’s less a gate-crasher than a fence-peerer. What, he wonders, is on the other side of the fence? Why is there a fence there in the first place? What is the fence made of and who put it there? “We say there is a border between territories,” he writes, “but no noun, no actual thing, is really present—only an action, or a state of being. A verb.” This curious book is about that verb.
Cashwell sees borders everywhere: in gerrymandering, the geography of the baseball diamond (“The strike zone is like most other things defined by lines: subject not only to the vagaries of individual judgment, but to the consent of those affected by it.”), UNC basketball, the lack of time zones in China, the Sabbath (“Moral borders are fundamentally the same as those drawn on the map; they are tools”), state policies regarding alcohol, as well as calendars, comic books, the boundaries between musical genres, the difference between the male and female brain, the relationship to finger sizes and penis sizes, the MPAA’s arbitrary insistence on age to define who can and can’t see a movie, and mortality. That said, it’s not that long a book.
* * *
Who isn’t a little confused by boundaries? We’re in the midst of a set of cyberwarlets right now, Twitter struggles over guns, men’s rights, feminism, issues of social justice, and millions of other arguments. “Place” is a pretty fluid concept when you’re online all day. We’re surrounded by vague borders. Then again the geopolitical world isn’t much better. The global community is puzzling over what to do with Iraq’s borders as it sinks into sectarian violence—and this violence is only the most recent manifestation of a long, long war set in motion by Europeans when they divided up the map of the Middle East not actually that long ago. The fact that “we” are still talking about “their” borders is a good indicator of just how long things take to play out. Or closer to home: Silicon Valley seems to be ascendant, due to some sort of weird alchemical magic that happens when you mix sunshine and computer code, so much so that people are always proposing new places prefixed with Silicon—in the U.K., Silicon Roundabout, Silicon Glen, and Silicon Fen, or the Silicon Slopes of Utah.
There is a whole academic discipline of this stuff: human geography. Cashwell doesn’t push hard into it but from his bibliography he’s familiar with some of the work that goes on. Human geography is a fascinating discipline, a sort of mashup of anthropology, sociology, and geography, with humans at the core of it; you can know us, it supposes, by our borders. Some of its practitioners, like the great Yi-Fu Tuan, tend to work in aphorisms as much as maps. (“When space feels thoroughly familiar to us,” wrote Tuan, “it has become place.”) This book is about human geography, but it isn’t a work of human geography. It’s aimed outward, at general readers.
Like any good essayist, Cashwell is doing his damnedest to capture sensations and perceptions, then organize them for a greater effect. To that end he doesn’t celebrate human territoriality but he does respect it, and he captures the wide and strange range of our border-drawing tendencies, both across maps and across culture—the author once played “Purple Rain” on a college “alternative” radio station and drew the ire of the listeners, who wanted the boundaries of college radio more vigorously defended from pop; or the chronological boundaries of adolescence, where the line between adult and child is blurred; or the ultimate boundary of death and extinction, and the impossibility of saying that there truly are no more passenger pigeons on the earth, despite the astronomical odds that yes, they are extinct.
The use of the passenger pigeon is no fluke. Cashwell is an avid bird-watcher, and he does his best to make the book about more than bird-watching. That turns out to be a bit of a struggle; by the end of the book it’s basically a journey into American ornithology, with trips to Cornell, where the great bird-watchers gather, and details from a “life list” of birds to see. There’s a lot about woodpeckers. It’s almost like the birds are tiny sirens tweeting to him from across his keyboard; the thread about mass dinosaur extinctions, for example, unravels into more bits about woodpeckers. It might have become insufferable, but the guy loves birds, and who can choose their obsessions? Besides, bird-watching involves travel and taxonomy, so it’s a good base of operations for a book about territory. If he’s going to write about borders, it’s going to be through binoculars, and we’re all going to have to make the best of it. Him too. I for one have no egrets.
TODAY IN SLATE
Smash and Grab
Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?
I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.
The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented
Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.
Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy
It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?