Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” is a provocative, evocative and multilayered melange of maps and essays about the Left Coast’s signature city and its surroundings.
Solnit and an elite group of writers, cartographers and artists have turned their skills to dissecting various historical and contemporary aspects of Bay Area zeitgeist. Twenty-two sections, each comprising a map and an essay, address topics from the meaty to the mundane.
Solnit often pairs two disparate subjects in one section. Section 7, “Poison/Palate,” features a map illustrated with a two-headed mermaid and an essay contrasting the Bay Area’s culinary bounty with its many toxic sites.
Section 20, “Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders,” links the historical growth of Bay Area Soto Zen Buddhism to area waterways and the salmon that inhabit them.
The text is excellent, but frankly, Solnit — author of nine of the 22 essays — writes rings around her co-authors. Her fluid, penetrating style embodies the whimsical and lyrical yet solemn tone of the entire work.
She can capture a concept in one sentence, as in Section 3, “Cinema City,” where she writes that Eadweard Muybridge first captured men and horses in action “as if the ice of frozen photographic time had broken free into a river of images.”
Content aside, the book is an elegant object. Use of the vertical format is a bit puzzling, however. The tall pages necessitate a spread for each map, so it is impossible to simultaneously look at a map and read its exegesis.
The maps are intriguing and often cryptic — why not place them in landscape format, each one on a wide left-hand page facing a wide right-hand text page?
Alternatively, the notion of a digital “Infinite City” is intriguing. Imagine in Section 6, “Monarchs and Queens,” rolling over the map site “Mona’s 440” and learning that Mona’s was at 440 Broadway between 1939 and 1948. That information is in the book, some three pages after the map.
One attraction of “Infinite City” the book, as opposed to the hypothetical Web version, is the invitation it extends to proceed slowly.
In particular, maps 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 22 are each worth a leisurely examination, a perusal to then be made more meaningful by a careful reading of the text. This is a book to savor, not one for multitaskers to page through on their lunch hour while texting their friends and updating their Facebook page.
Written by Rebecca Solnit
Published by University of California Press
Price $24.95 paperback, $49.95 hard cover