One of my favorite scenes in modern literature is in Joe College by Tom Perrotta. The scene describes a down-on-his-luck “townie” who is standing on the sidewalk staring at a young undergrad from Yale University undressing in her dorm room. There’s this great language describing a moat between the sidewalk and the dorm, and it of course represents the gulf between the Ivy League scholar and this local yokel.
When I first read the novel, this particular symbolism seemed a little too easy, so I walked down the street from my home in New Haven to check out where the author sets the place. Sure enough, there is a medieval-looking moat right where Perrotta says it is. I then walked around campus and found that the architecture of the university is largely made up of big stone walls, locked iron gates and moats (yes, moats) that wall off the school from the rest of the city. If you are lucky enough to get through a secured gate you’ll find yourself in the middle of an idyllic quad surrounded by high academic buildings. A freshman waking up in a dorm room and walking across campus would never know that she was in the middle of a gritty city with an above-average crime rate.
I remember thinking that it was as if the school was trying to keep the barbarians at bay, and Perrotta accurately uses this to give his readers greater insight into the relationship between two characters with completely different backgrounds.
That’s when the light bulb went off.
The relationship between literature and real, physical places is genuine and helps enhance the reading experience and develop a sense of community where these scenes take place. I teamed up with a geographer and a software developer to create a website called PlacingLiterature.com, a platform where people can map the places from their favorite novels. We launched PlacingLiterature.com June 19 at the Arts and Ideas Festival in New Haven, Conn., and we already have more than 1,500 data points logged on the website.
Using the website, detective novel fans can see where Sam Spade of the Maltese Falcon lived and worked in San Francisco. Book lovers in Duluth, Minnesota, can track the literary scenes that take place around the shore of Lake Superior. Amy Tan fans can track the Woo, Hsu, Jong and St. Claire families through their journeys from China to the Bay Area. Or Yale graduates can explore the dozens of literary places on campus.
The data is crowdsourced, so anyone with a Google login can add a place to the database by clicking on the map. Alternatively, users can also type in a city to see the literary places in their community and explore those sites. Imagine a library starting a book club that focuses on reading and mapping local literature. A tourism agency creating a walking tour of literary places downtown. Or a business highlighting its role in the latest spy thriller.
One of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore, author of Lamb, Sacre Blue and A Dirty Job among other novels. Moore does a masterful job of creating absurd stories about vampires, Death and miniature squirrel people that take place in locations around San Francisco that I know very well. The Marina Safeway, St. Francis Memorial Hospital and Washington Square Park all play important roles in Moore’s storytelling. And it works for the reader. Nothing is more exciting than when you read a scene about a vampire cat that sits on the stoop of an apartment building just a few blocks from where you live. Even though the stories are complete fiction (I hope!), setting them in real-world locations gives a sense of realism to the novels and helps make that connection between a piece of art and the physical world.
And that’s what we want to capture with PlacingLiterature.com. It’s at this intersection of geography and literature where we hope to open readers’ eyes and get them to appreciate their communities and share their experiences.
So, please, check out our website where you can map places from your favorite novels and explore the literature that takes place in your neighborhoods.
Andrew Bardin Williams is a co-founder of PlacingLiterature.com, a website that maps literary places that take place in real locations. He is the author of Learning to Haight, a 2012 Indie Reader Discovery Award finalist in literary fiction. Like Placing Literature on Facebook at Facebook.com/placingliterature.