The Dotted Line

A curious book that explores the real and imaginary boundaries in our lives.

Illustration by Eleanor Davis

There’s an old joke, it’s attributed to Emo Philips, it goes:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.”
I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “A Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
He said, “Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

Which is a perfect illustration of the Freudian concept of the narcissism of small differences, which is borrowed from the British anthropologist Ernest Crawley. The closer the territories, the more there is to fight over; the smaller the stakes, the more vicious the battles. Watching the internecine warfare inside of an English department, or within a political party, it doesn’t take long to see why borders arise, invisible or otherwise.

Most people assume that there is wisdom in boundaries. They see a line and steer clear, whether it’s a border fence between countries or the divide between genders. Universities are divided into colleges with departments. Our cultural critics debate what’s literature and what’s not; our pundits draw bright lines between their ideas and their opponents’.

In Along Those Lines, Peter Cashwell is not exactly here to smash through all that. He’s less a gate-crasher than a fence-peerer. What, he wonders, is on the other side of the fence? Why is there a fence there in the first place? What is the fence made of and who put it there? “We say there is a border between territories,” he writes, “but no noun, no actual thing, is really present—only an action, or a state of being. A verb.” This curious book is about that verb.

Cashwell sees borders everywhere: in gerrymandering, the geography of the baseball diamond (“The strike zone is like most other things defined by lines: subject not only to the vagaries of individual judgment, but to the consent of those affected by it.”), UNC basketball, the lack of time zones in China, the Sabbath (“Moral borders are fundamentally the same as those drawn on the map; they are tools”), state policies regarding alcohol, as well as calendars, comic books, the boundaries between musical genres, the difference between the male and female brain, the relationship to finger sizes and penis sizes, the MPAA’s arbitrary insistence on age to define who can and can’t see a movie, and mortality. That said, it’s not that long a book.

* * *

Who isn’t a little confused by boundaries? We’re in the midst of a set of cyberwarlets right now, Twitter struggles over guns, men’s rights, feminism, issues of social justice, and millions of other arguments. “Place” is a pretty fluid concept when you’re online all day. We’re surrounded by vague borders. Then again the geopolitical world isn’t much better. The global community is puzzling over what to do with Iraq’s borders as it sinks into sectarian violence—and this violence is only the most recent manifestation of a long, long war set in motion by Europeans when they divided up the map of the Middle East not actually that long ago. The fact that “we” are still talking about “their” borders is a good indicator of just how long things take to play out. Or closer to home: Silicon Valley seems to be ascendant, due to some sort of weird alchemical magic that happens when you mix sunshine and computer code, so much so that people are always proposing new places prefixed with Silicon—in the U.K., Silicon Roundabout, Silicon Glen, and Silicon Fen, or the Silicon Slopes of Utah.

There is a whole academic discipline of this stuff: human geography. Cashwell doesn’t push hard into it but from his bibliography he’s familiar with some of the work that goes on. Human geography is a fascinating discipline, a sort of mashup of anthropology, sociology, and geography, with humans at the core of it; you can know us, it supposes, by our borders. Some of its practitioners, like the great Yi-Fu Tuan, tend to work in aphorisms as much as maps. (“When space feels thoroughly familiar to us,” wrote Tuan, “it has become place.”) This book is about human geography, but it isn’t a work of human geography. It’s aimed outward, at general readers.

Like any good essayist, Cashwell is doing his damnedest to capture sensations and perceptions, then organize them for a greater effect. To that end he doesn’t celebrate human territoriality but he does respect it, and he captures the wide and strange range of our border-drawing tendencies, both across maps and across culture—the author once played “Purple Rain” on a college “alternative” radio station and drew the ire of the listeners, who wanted the boundaries of college radio more vigorously defended from pop; or the chronological boundaries of adolescence, where the line between adult and child is blurred; or the ultimate boundary of death and extinction, and the impossibility of saying that there truly are no more passenger pigeons on the earth, despite the astronomical odds that yes, they are extinct.

The use of the passenger pigeon is no fluke. Cashwell is an avid bird-watcher, and he does his best to make the book about more than bird-watching. That turns out to be a bit of a struggle; by the end of the book it’s basically a journey into American ornithology, with trips to Cornell, where the great bird-watchers gather, and details from a “life list” of birds to see. There’s a lot about woodpeckers. It’s almost like the birds are tiny sirens tweeting to him from across his keyboard; the thread about mass dinosaur extinctions, for example, unravels into more bits about woodpeckers. It might have become insufferable, but the guy loves birds, and who can choose their obsessions? Besides, bird-watching involves travel and taxonomy, so it’s a good base of operations for a book about territory. If he’s going to write about borders, it’s going to be through binoculars, and we’re all going to have to make the best of it. Him too. I for one have no egrets.

It’s fun to spend a few hours in the presence of an amateur geographer whose brain is crammed with birds and pop songs and bits of string. The end effect of Along Those Lines is of having dipped into a long-running notebook, a very pleasant one, from a person who would truly like to know how all the human systems work but has also accepted that perfect knowledge will never come. He’s going to do his best and not pretend to have all the answers. Cashwell doesn’t have a focused thesis about human territoriality. He wants us to open our eyes to borders, but he doesn’t tell us what to do about them. Just seeing them is enough, perhaps.

There’s a sort of comic, central irony to this book about borders, which is that it runs at a quick pace across disciplines—geography, science, art, and dozens more—chapter after chapter, stepping on everyone’s toes. The best part about being a writer is that you don’t have to gain permission to do meaningful work. (Of course if you do write something interesting people will come along to “discover” you, much as Columbus “discovered” America.)

The most useful reminder offered in the book is just how arbitrary our borders are. Pennsylvania was invented, not born unto the earth. Essays asking “can science fiction be literature?” as published several times per year in quality publications, always strikes me as like asking “can the Irish be white?” It’s a tasteless question, it misses the point, and it’s outmoded anyway.

And yet the boundaries between genres in particular were of great value to me when I was finding my own identity. When I was 16, the music I liked gave me instructions on how to live. It was industrial music, so the lessons tended to be along the lines of “sit in a parking lot nihilistically at midnight,” which I assiduously did. It gave me implicit guidelines on what to wear and how to cut my hair, and that in turn led me to find other people who had made the same choices, and thus I was able to find a tribe of similar nerdy semimisfits. And yet of course I didn’t just like one kind of music; I liked classic rock, and hip-hop, and R&B, and so forth. Those were the bridges to neighboring lands: the other kids on the bus, the other kids in other corners of the parking lot. If we could tolerate each other’s music, we could tolerate each other. There were always people who could cross the borders, sometimes to sell drugs, sometimes to date, sometimes just because their personality or family history gave them entrée to multiple quarters.

The fundamental tribal nature of the world seems to be immutable. We’re at the end of the World Cup right now, celebrated as the best example of “sportsmanship” (sorry, every woman) that can be mustered outside of the Olympics. The essential corruption of building a bunch of stadiums in Brazil is plastered over by spectacle. (Then again, it’s not like the United States declares war on poverty every time the NFL season starts.)

But here’s the thing: Our best globalized self really does consist of people wearing colors in a giant circle making primal chants en masse. We’re never going to get past this, are we?

And yet we don’t have a chance without borders. Living in New York City, I realized a fundamental truth about dense places: Wherever you are, someone else would like to be there. Someone wants your place in line at the post office, or to lean against the bar where you’re leaning. They want your apartment, your office, your seat on the subway. It can lead to a sense of gloom; it’s hard to look at a church in Brooklyn without contemplating the real-estate ravens that circle it, waiting for God to die so they can swoop down and turn it into condos. Or to walk into an open-plan office and realize that human beings have been reduced to a measure of square feet and some nostrums about “open communication.” A lore builds up, of secret bathrooms where you can be alone for a while behind a stall door that locks, of places that are quiet and empty on the weekends, of times to leave before traffic destroys everything, of places to cry. Anything for that moment of blissful untouched quiet, alone in a bathroom with no one touching your shoulder.

What this book confirms for me is that borders will always be a negotiation, something worthy of challenge and respect. Even the book itself is a kind of territory; it has a cover and a number of words, and the pages have edges. It belongs to a single author. And to his birds. “There are no lines,” he writes. “There are only places that people think lines should go.”

Along Those Lines: The Boundaries That Create Our World by Peter Cashwell. Paul Dry Books.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.