Jane Austen thought those who didn’t read were stupid. More precisely, that ‘the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’. My 13-year-old sister would beg to differ. She thinks reading is stupid – because, and I quote, it’s boring. I’ve always been a reader, and a pretentious one at that (think the precocious figure of Roald Dahl’s Matilda), so have never shared my sister’s sentiments. What I did think stupid once upon a time, however, is Geography. The hydrological cycle and demographics of one population or other were in fact ‘intolerably stupid’ in all their bore. If this was Geography, I’d have nothing to do with it, thank you very much. Not even Austen’s ‘what are men to rocks and mountains?’ could convince me otherwise. Yet, beyond the rigidity of a GCSE exam syllabus, geography is perhaps more than anything else about reading. (And I don’t think it intolerably stupid anymore, in case you wondered – even if it retains the trope of a doss degree).
Plato believed reading gave soul to the universe and wings to the mind. A pretentious reference, yes, but also an effective capture of geography’s relation to reading. The etymology of geography grounds the concept, with Greek roots, in writing: gē-graphie, earth-writing. If the verb is writing the earth, its noun is reading this writing and, by extension, the earth. So in reading, I am at core engaging with geography. Take Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The novel’s writing is geographical for through it Austen explores, translates and comments on the world, whether this be a construction of the rolling rocks and mountains of Derbyshire or a commentary on the patriarchal social conventions of the time. Its reading is equally geographical, for through the novel I engage with the world in particular ways and shape my understanding of it. The same can be said of most writing, almost all of which functions as an engagement with the earth and hence can be analysed for its geographical function.
In one of my interviews, an author listed in my personal statement was retorted as ‘not really a serious geographer’. The tone colluded me in the realisation, and I had to pass off Michael Palin as a bit of light reading, an intellectual aperitif to the main course of Foucault and dessert of Said. Really, I had no idea who passed as a ‘geographer’ (let alone a serious one) and Palin was just someone who came up easily in search results as recommended reading for a personal statement-headed A level student. What I didn’t realise then, and I think I’m only really starting to realise now, is that, disbanding the academic corset of particular intellectual rigour or qualification, most (every?) writer is in their own respect a geographer. They’re writing about the earth: translating it, interpreting it, constructing it. By extension and implication, therefore, reading too is geographical. Palin may not be a ‘serious’ geographer (whatever that is), nor may be Austen or Plato, but, like Foucault and Said, he is fundamentally writing about the earth (be it through the lens of travel-writing) and hence, reading his work is a geographical exercise.
Reading as earth-writing also functions in a more literal sense of geography, shaping and creating your understanding of and place in the world, both imaginative and real. I’ve never been to New York, and yet I have a geography of New York, entirely personal to me: a geography of lessons learnt from the attractions and clutches of hedonism and money in Long Island; early morning walks armed with coffee and pastry past Tiffany’s after a night of socialising spilling out of my sparsely clothed apartment; and the hidden worlds of corners in old antique shops or gilded frames in modern art galleries and museums. It may be a geography informed by the fictional writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Donna Tartt, but that in no way undermines its validity or role in constituting my sense of space.
My everyday geography is equally informed as much by what I’ve read as anything else, and this extends beyond the perverse division of fact and fiction (so you can have your Plato and your Austen), or, as my interviewer would seemingly have it, serious and other writing. Take Cambridge. Chances are you’ll have made or heard a reference to Harry Potter and the magical world of Hogwarts at least once during your time here (or, on the odds that you don’t go to Cambridge, have an imaginative geography of the place partially informed by the books): formal dinners in grand halls become meals in Great Hall, as the long gowns coloured and shaped according to your college become substitutes for house robes and the archaic buildings you walk past to lectures reminiscent of Hogwarts. You might even have attended a Harry Potter themed superhall. J.K Rowling is certainly no geographer (and I wouldn’t list her on my personal statement), yet her translation of the earth into the world of Hogwarts performs geographical work by shaping its readers’ everyday geographies of Cambridge.
Geography is in many ways, therefore, the reading and writing of the earth. I don’t think you ‘intolerably stupid’ if you don’t read; I do however, as a geographer, think it a shame and sorry loss to your own understanding of, engagement with, and experience in the world.
By Chloe Rixon