As a reader and a writer, I am a lover of the essay. As such, I tend to try to crowbar just about everything I ingest in the media to somehow fit under the essay umbrella. The word "essay," after all, derives from the French essai , to try or attempt, so I tend to think of any mode of nonfiction expression that's attempting something new or vaguely experimental as an essay. This would include list-essaying, video essaying, audio essaying, mashup, mixed-media, or any other attempt at subverting and/or expanding the limits of human expression.

With that said, one of my recent favorite essay forms is the "map-essay." Made widely accessible by Google Maps, the map-essay is created when one or more people use a map as the structure around which to frame a topic, inserting bits of information and/or story about the topic into the relevant places on the map.

One of my favorite recent examples of this is "Mapping Dylan." Created on Slate by Thomas Bollier, Chris Kirk, and Richard Kreitner for Dylan's 72nd birthday, Mapping Dylan is an interactive map of the world with a marker for every place Dylan has every included in one of his songs and a mini-essay on the place's meaning in Dylan's world. Its creators explain it thus:

Bob Dylan’s music, it’s often said, happens in a world of its own—where the highway is for gamblers and you’re always 1,000 miles from home. It’s a surreal, ethereal realm, lawless but for chance, allusion, and rhyme.
And yet it is our world, because there's another, parallel tendency in Dylan’s songs: the direct place-name reference. Once the amateur Dylanologist tries to think of some, they flood the brain. “I’ll look for you in old Honolulu/ San Francisco, Ashtabula.” “Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn/ In the year of who knows when.” “Oxford town, Oxford town/ Everybody’s got their head bowed down.” From the personal—“that little Minnesota town”—to the political—“Ever since the British burned the White House down/ There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town”—Dylan uses place-names to maintain rhythm or rhyme, to reference other works of art, or to evoke certain thoughts and emotions. (We never do learn what it’s like “to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,” though we feel like we do.) It’s only natural, after all, that a man who left tiny Hibbing, Minn. for New York City at age 19, quickly became world-famous, and has spent the last 25 years on a “never-ending” worldwide tour, might have a curious perspective on the concept of place.

A more utilitarian use of the map-essay, of which this is but one of many examples, is "The Scoop," which compiles and organizes many places in New York City on a map of the town by subject; my favorite "subject" is coffee houses, and I consult The Scoop frequently when I'm looking for a place to work on my laptop for an hour or two while away from home. A brainchild of the New York Times, The Scoop is now available as an app.

These two examples might seem like completely different things, and they are, in intent at least. But they share a formal quality with all the types experimental essays I listed above - an assumption that, in a post-scarcity age of information, any stab at originality or utility, in the arts or in the marketplace, lies not in creation of new objects but in arrangement of the myriad objects already in existence.

AuthorJohn Proctor