Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
History's greatest journeys, now available in KML files.
From Herodotus to The Hobbit, some books require two bookmarks: one for the text, and one for the map.
But if you'd like to relive some of history's real greatest journeys without flipping back the pages, George Stiller has a website for you: MyReadingMapped, a compendium of cartographed history. Stiller has engineered 131 of what he calls "documentaries" -- interactive maps of wars, expeditions, and pilgrimages furnished not only with location markers but with prose, or in some cases photographs of buildings, paintings or sculptures.
Plunge into the East African jungles with Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the Breaker of Rocks, or trace the cantilevers of Frank Lloyd Wright. Follow Alexander the Great through Central Asia or explore the battlefields of the Revolutionary War. By downloading KML files, you can use Google Earth to climb Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hilary or tag along with Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the Louisiana Territory.
Stiller, who spent his career in advertising and communications, started the site as a hobby when he found himself reading history books and following along on Google Maps. To burnish his credentials, he began to incorporate links to online sources. And because most of the tales he tells are out of copyright, you can read them in one tab as you follow a journey in another.
His first and most popular map is a "documentary" of the American Civil War. With its dense clusters of pushpins, it is certainly a feat of record-keeping. But for those not familiar with the military history of the war, it can appear dense and difficult to interpret.
More effective are the maps of conquerors and explorers, where the paths of narration and navigation are clear and often backed by a primary text source. Stiller's log of Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, for example, would be a fine companion to reading the book. (Click through for a list of locations as they appear.)
View Interactive Map of the Adventures of Charles Darwin 1832-1836 in a larger map
Some express a narrative more clearly still, such as the map of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-17 expedition to Antarctica:
View Interactive Map of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17 in a larger map
The purpose of these and the hundred-odd other maps, which Stiller is constantly updating both with older journeys and with modern geographic sagas, like the Boston Marathon manhunt that took place last month, is to help make these historic journeys come alive.
"My hope is that teachers would use it to inspire reading and writing to students who are currently fixated on an online media," Stiller wrote in 2011, "and that travelers and followers of explorers would use these maps to plan their next vacation."
Linear journeys, such as Earnest Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier's 1866 expedition of the Mekong River, are particularly easy to follow. De Lagrée suffered from ulcers, fever, dysentery, and died from infected wounds after a horrific attack of leeches as he attempted to find the source of Southeast Asia's great river. You can retrace his steps without even leaving your house.
View Interactive map of the 1866 de Lagrée/Garnier Exploration of the Mekong River in a larger map
Top image: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Illustration from the French edition of Lord Stanley's memoir How I Found Dr. Livingstone. Via Wikimedia Commons.