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Toby Lester

The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name

A-FourthPartWorldToby Lester is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and an invited research scholar at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. His work has also been featured on the radio program This American Life.

The Topic: Americans are sometimes accused of viewing themselves as occupying the center of the world. But in the history of Western geography the New World is, of course, a relative newcomer. Even after Columbus’s great encounter, mapmakers were still reluctant to identify the Americas as their own land mass, usually tacking it on to the Asian lands the explorer had originally sought. In The Fourth Part of the World, Toby Lester tells the story of the first map that broke with that tradition, clearly showing a new, independent land mass. This document, also known as the Waldseemüller Map, was also the first to use the word "America"—perhaps why the Library of Congress bought the document for $10 million in 2001. But Lester’s tale is about much more than the map—he brings together explorers and kings along with scoundrels and scholars to show the many forces that lead to such a shift in thinking.
Free Press. 480 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781416535317.

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[The Fourth Part of the World] is a gracefully concise, richly illustrated, wonderfully detailed compression of dozens of stories and one of the most readable and satisfying books of the year. … [The] spirit of the armchair traveler defines the appeal of this fine, beguiling book." David Walton

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Without Toby Lester’s fine book, the Waldseemüller Map might remain an interesting historical footnote. A treasure, sure, for naming the Americas, but its importance would remain obscured for all but a few scholars. Instead, one now understands the creation of the map as a world-changing moment, ‘a birth certificate for the world that came into being in 1492—and … a death warrant for the one that was there before.’" Martin Schmutterer

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lester] builds a cumulative tale of rich, diverse influences that he juggles with gathering speed and showmanship until the whir of detail coalesces into an inspired, imaginative piece of mapmaking. … The unknown is elemental here, and Lester plays it like a stringed instrument." Peter Lewis

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"… Lester captures the passion, curiosity and, at times, the hubris behind the European explorations. … It took courage to sail off into that unknown, and Lester’s book offers a clear survey of how people came to understand the world in which they lived." Scott Martelle

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"An odd, productively recursive book, The Fourth Part of the World presents more of an intellectual detective story than a doctrinaire history. The generalist nature of his approach allows Lester to effectively dramatize the simultaneity of history … This assemblage of thumbnail history has limitations, of course, and The Fourth Part of the World sacrifices exactitude in order to spin a good yarn." Michael Washburn

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Fourth Part of the World transcends mere cartographical melodrama. Maps—intricate, absurd, fantastical, ridiculous—fill this beautiful book, reinforcing Lester’s thesis that they tell us as much about their makers as our surroundings. … Whether a primitive ‘T-O’ globe sitting in the hand of a Holy Roman emperor or a meteorological chart analyzed by a local TV weatherman, maps detail what is important to the society that generates them." Justin Moyer

Critical Summary

Many reviewers stressed early on that Lester’s book offers more of a historical detective story than a narrative built around exciting characters of the past. But they were also consistently impressed with the way he could draw in readers by bringing together what might otherwise seem to be a miscellaneous collection of observations and tales. Above all, critics came away impressed with the way that all maps provide insight into the character of a culture. All the more true, then, for one as important as this.