In 2003, the Library of Congress paid $10 million for a 500-year-old German map. Why the hefty price tag? The document is the only remaining copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller map, which contains the earliest known reference to the New World as America. Upon hearing of the sale, Toby Lester, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, started looking into the backstory of the document. The product of that research, The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name ($30, Free Press), is not simply the story of a map—rather, it's a macroscopic view of the history of exploration in the age of discovery. I spoke with Lester about the first picture of the earth from space and why today’s adventurers have nothing on medieval Franciscan monks. —Abe Streep
Outside: What was your reaction on seeing the map for the first time?
Lester: By the time the Library of Congress put the map on display it was December, 2007, and I was almost finished writing the book. I'd already spent a lot of time with the map. I own a full-size facsimile and there’s a good digital version that the Library of Congress makes available. The digital version was great because I could literally zoom in. It was like flying over a very old, rich history. Still, there’s nothing like having face time with this 500-year-old picture of the world.
In a way it’s a technology story–this map was the original Google Earth.
There’s a big analogy there. The printing press was new at the time the map was made in the same way that the Internet is new now. And there’s a Wiki-element to the story. It wasn’t one person who managed to gather this information, which amounts to the first map that shows the world as we know it now. In a way the story that the book tells is how, collectively and over the course of hundreds of years, many people managed to piece together a picture of the world as a whole. But they weren’t trying. They had specific objectives that had to do with commerce or religion; they didn’t think of themselves as explorers in the way that we think of those people today.