[Book Review] The Fourth Part of the World

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History's Greatest MapThe Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History’s Greatest Map by Toby Lester

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read history books the way others read genre fiction. Some of them are well-written and some not, some well-sourced and some not. Sometimes a book claiming to be a work of historical scholarship is actually a political screed. When I read one well-written, well-sourced, and about a subject not often tread, I am in my happy place. The Fourth Part of the World is one of those books and it’s about maps.

To be precise, it is about one map: the first map in the world to name the New World “America.” But to get to that point, one has to go back in time and start with the Medieval maps of the 12th century and slowly move the clock forward through the Golden Horde and the Crusades. The Travels of Marco Polo and “the Book” — no authoritative version of the travels of Marco Polo exists but any number of versions await a reader’s pleasure. The endless fascination and eternal quest to find Prester John, an imaginary king with an imaginary army waiting just over the hills to come to the assistance of the Crusaders and who existed in every unexplored corner of every map. The re-discovery of Greek in Western Europe, lost for a thousand years, and the translation of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographie, a book with instructions on how to draw maps, described latitude and longitude, and with 8000 places in the ancient world. Great convocations on religious matters where men of learning got together and, for the first time in dark rooms, discussed the forgotten philosophies and mathematics of the ancient world as they were feverishly translated, and exchanged books. The printing press. The invention of the Caravel. Dreams of Japan. The Portuguese and Africa and what they found there. The first trip around the Cape of Good Hope. The men of Bristol who saw something, once, a long stretch of coastline while chasing schools of cod. Columbus. John Cabot. Amerigo Vespucci. de Medicis and Papal Spies and secret societies of Royal mapmakers and the quest for the way to India. Lies and false letters and Monarchies jostling to lay hands on the New World.

And it all comes together with two men in a small town outside of Strassburg, one a philosopher and one a cartographer, who had access to a printing press, a stolen map of the New World, and a set of forged letters full of imaginary extra adventures of Amerigo Vespucci. They fell in love with the alliteration of Africa and Asia and Europe and, with small metal letters and newly translated Latin poetry in their heads, named the new world America. It was a best seller for twenty years but maps being what maps are and they wore out as new ones appeared. The map disappeared from the face of the Earth until one copy complete, in tact, and whole, found… and now in the Library of Congress.

The book ends with a very nice touch of the impact of the maps of the New World on Nicolaus Copernicus who quotes much of the intro text to the first true world map in his On the Revolutions. It leaves proof that, while perhaps not all of his theories of the Earth revolving around the Sun came from this source, it had bearing on his thinking. With the Fourth Part of the World, the old Aristotelean view of the world no longer worked. And if it didn’t work, what else about how the world worked was outright wrong.

The Fourth Part of the World is terrific. For anyone interested in the history of maps and learning in Western Europe, or the Age of Discovery, I can completely recommend this book. It’s a fun read, it’s well written, it’s incredibly well sourced, it is full of pictures of maps to help with the text, and it’s all around great.

Fantastic. An easy 5 star rating.

View all my reviews