Library Thing, the site that brought us the "Unsuggester," contains a link to a fascinating, if less interactive, book-related Web page: Matthew Gray's Earth Viewed from Books. As most of my readers know, Google is in the midst of a multi-year project to digitize every printed book in the world. As part of that project, the digitizers are generating maps of all the place names mentioned in each volume. Matt Gray, a software engineer and Google employee, has taken this a step further: he has plotted all of these place-name references onto a map of the world. Furthermore, he has prepared several historical maps showing the gradual spread of place-name references from books published between 1800 and 1900, graphically demonstrating the growing Western awareness of North America, India, Japan, and Australasia. He also shows that Patagonia, the Sahara, most of Australia, and most of the former Soviet Union still lie outside of the world's literary consciousness, either because they are lightly populated or because they are too isolated to draw writers' attention. True "globalization" is apparently still years away.
It would be interesting to extend Mr. Gray's historical maps back into the eighteenth, or even the sixteenth century, and to watch as Europeans gradually learned about (and wrote about) the Americas and East Asia. For now, though, he has produced some food for thought - or at least a few intellectual hors d'oeuvres.