Review: The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

Notice: This review is published in Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 33(3-4):128-129, 2013, doi:10.1177 / 0270467613508089. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way is a compendium of knowledge about navigation. It is also a virtuosic display of how much can be said about a topic when a motivated author really puts his mind to it. The reader who picks up this book will learn not only about basic concepts of navigation, but also about Norse sagas, tree moss, magnetism, airplanes, Toledo tables, memory, Babylonians, kayaks, roof thatching, Jamaican beaches, dinoflagellates, clouds, Thor, sunstones, flood legends, Orion, buoyancy, and Harriet Tubman. It is the perfect gift for the sailor in your family.

The strength of this book is that it contains an enormous amount of information about navigation in its historical, scientific, and practical aspects. The author reconstructed historical navigational devices, attempted to reproduce ancient navigational techniques, sent students into the woods to practice navigational skills, and created a course at Harvard on Primitive Navigation to teach others how to have the same experiences. The result is a book that is packed with knowledge. To give a sense of scale here, the book contains an astonishing 225 figures, including images of Turkish mosaics, graphs of probability distributions for wandering paths, diagrams of the locations of navigation lights on modern aircraft, photographs of various types of clouds, and drawings of boat hulls.

The text of The Lost Art is organized into topical chapters that are modular and largely independent. All chapters relate to the central theme of navigation, but each chapter is self-contained and most could be read in almost any order. To take a few examples, a chapter titled “The Sun and the Moon” discusses the use of the sun and the moon to fix position and measure seasons. “Fellow Travelers” discusses how planets, migratory birds, and airplanes move around. “Urban Myths” tries to lay to rest, once and for all, the oft-repeated but wrong ideas that moss only grows on the north side of trees, that churches are built facing east, and that the orientation of satellite dishes offers reliable information about your location on the earth. “Red Sky at Night” discusses global weather patterns. “Maps in the Mind” discusses the relationship between mammalian mental structures and cartographic imagination. And “Currents and Gyres” considers the conditions that produce ocean currents and waves.

The first and last chapters are exceptions, both because they are structurally different from other chapters and because they do not seem to fit well with the rest of the book. In the first chapter, “Before the Bubble,” the author briefly attempts to convince the reader that people today ought to spend time developing skills in primitive navigation. Huth suggests that we have lost important abilities to navigate our world as we have come to rely on our “bubble” of personal technology. In his hypothetical example, a person reliant on the “bubble” can only respond to questions by “manipulating his tiny box” and therefore “becomes helpless” if the box is taken away (1). This claim is of course hyperbolic. In subsequent chapters the author regularly lauds advances in scientific knowledge and technology as important solutions that have saved lives and improved conditions. It is possible that a navigator concentrating on a sextant was somehow less in a “bubble” than a navigator concentrating on a GPS unit, but “Before the Bubble” does not really explain why one case illustrates a solution and the other illustrates a problem.

The other exception is the final chapter of the book. “Baintabu’s Story” is the author’s fictional account of how a Polynesian navigator might have done her work. In the story, Baintabu applies techniques discussed in earlier chapters of the book to the practical problem of finding her way home after being thrown off the lead canoe by her political enemies. Spoiler alert: she gets home thanks to a navigational solution that is counterintuitive and complicated but mostly plausible on the technical side. The broader point of Baintabu’s story seems to be that primitive navigation is a sophisticated form of practical knowledge once you take the time to learn it. That is certainly a good point to remember, even if it is not clear who is arguing otherwise. But Baintabu’s story also illustrates by contrast how rarely these kinds of navigational challenges impose on our lives today. So the book ends on a confusing note. Should we try to become Baintabu, or should we buy a GPS (and live in a democracy) in order to avoid Baintabu’s problems?

In terms of writing style, The Lost Art is delightful in small doses but overwhelming in large doses. If you have ever spent an afternoon clicking through various links on Wikipedia entries, guided only by your interest in following your curiosity, then you already have a sense of how this book is organized. Now imagine watching someone else doing the clicking, for hours, and you will gain a sense of the experience of reading this book straight through. When even the author pauses to ask “Why am I bothering to tell you this?” (216), it is probably time to admit that the book might have been more tightly edited. Casual readers will likely find their initial enthusiasm difficult to sustain for 400-plus pages. It is especially unlikely that most high school or college students will read all the way through, even if required to do so.

But The Lost Art is definitely worth reading as a collection of interesting chapters, and particularly so for those who are interested in expanding their knowledge about the history and practical details of navigation. The book seems intended to be read in installments, a chapter or less at a time, by educated general readers who find the material inherently interesting but lack the time or energy to plow through a huge academic text or engage with a broader theoretical argument. For those considering The Lost Art for the classroom, the most productive pedagogical use of the text would be to extract short sections and supplement science lessons with rich historical material that stimulates student imagination. Sometimes it takes a Viking to make a lesson on polarization interesting, and The Lost Art has Vikings to spare.

No matter how you go about reading it, The Lost Art evinces charming modesty for a book so stuffed with useful information. It admits that efforts to replicate or even understand past navigational techniques often do not work, either because they require skill acquired through extensive and costly practice, because they require some bit of esoteric knowledge that renders them useless in ordinary hands, or because the lost art never really worked in the first place. This book is not really a field guide to navigation, a how-to manual offering practical survival skills, or a replacement for the “bubble.” In the event of a zombie apocalypse you would probably want a different book in your knapsack. But if zombies are coming and this is the only book around, at least you will find helpful reassurance that many other people in tough situations have found their way home.

Michael S. Evans
Dartmouth College

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. 544pp. $35.00 (cloth).

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019