“The Map of the System of Human Knowledge,” by James Tadd Adcox
“In your world my feet are out of step,
my arms don’t move, my hands don’t grab.
I will never read your stupid map,
so don’t call me incomplete.
You’re the freak.”
-The Notwist, “One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand”
It is the most human tendency to impose order and organization where there is none, conjure sense out of nothingness, and James Tadd Adcox submits to this urge in The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. As a former student of linguistics (a discipline that gleefully embraces classification systems) and a current student of geography (a discipline that reaches its highest expression in the map), I came to The Map of the System of Human Knowledge with special interest. Adcox’s book is organized as a taxonomy of all human knowledge, broken down into the categories Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Classifications abound: for instance, drilling down into Reason we have: Philosophy>Science of Man>Ethics>General>Of Virtue. Of the Necessity of Being Virtuous, etc. These various classifications, looking positively encyclopedic, give each short piece its own title. Indeed, the book is billed as a short encyclopedia.
You may argue that taxonomic classification contradicts the spirit of literature, which is flowing, spills everywhere, defies being boxed in. Or that the taxonomy is a gimmick. You might also assume that reading an encyclopedia is utterly boring. These statements would be wrong. The taxonomy of themes in Adcox’s book is not restrictive, but provides a flexible system of organization that the author works within to great effect, without being arbitrarily confined. Adcox’s stories float in some fantastical ether between the real and the imagined, in the provenance of unmoving arms, ungrabbing hands, and freaks of all sorts. Adcox takes us on a tour through a parallel universe, situating his stories on the tangent between our world and this dreamlike other, without swinging too far out from the real. One step inside doesn’t mean you fully understand this other universe, but Adcox brings you to a passing familiarity with it.
Consider “Philosophy/Science of Nature/Mathematics/Mixed/Geometric Astrology/Cosmography/Geography.” The narrator, unconvinced of Minneapolis’s existence, has friends at a dinner party all pull out different maps to prove it to him. Chicago doesn’t exist on one map, is in Florida on another, and Minnesota is the only thing in North America on a third. The story goes:
“If it bothers you so much, why not get out your own map?” asks one of my friends. He’s smiling at me in a way that implies he already knows why. I don’t have a map, and forgot to buy one before I left Raleigh, years ago. Any map I buy now would almost certainly show a gaping pit where my home once was.
I have known for years that I will never find my way.
There are so many boring stories Adcox could have written under the geography category (by my estimation about 90% of the discipline is sleep-inducing), but he succeeded in producing a charming piece that isn’t limited by its subject matter. The stories are enchanting and winkingly clever without showing off, wanting only to hold your hand and make you smile wryly. A woman gives birth to furniture; a man runs out of dreams, hearing only a dial tone; kitchen appliances become gradually more human, weeping over a neighbor’s death: this is the stuff of The Map Of The System Of Human Knowledge.
The stories in The Map of the System of Human Knowledge are like balloons floating high up in the sky, where all kinds of crazy stuff comes to pass that we don’t entirely understand, but they’re still tethered to the ground. The book is a cousin to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a 1995 “travelogue” of Suffolk that similarly walks the line between the real and the unreal, the fictional and historical. Adcox weaves the two together seamlessly and confidently, and it’s a delight to journey with him.