Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Four Points of the Compass

The Unexpected History of Direction

by Jerry Brotton

From the New York Times bestselling author of A History of the World in 12 Maps, this is the revelatory history of the four cardinal directions that have oriented and defined our place on the globe for millennia

  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 192
  • Publication Date November 05, 2024
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6368-4
  • Dimensions 5.50" x 8.50"
  • US List Price $27.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date November 05, 2024
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6369-1
  • US List Price $27.00

North, south, east, and west: almost all societies use these four cardinal directions to orientate themselves and to understand who they are by projecting where they are. For millennia, these four directions have been foundational to our travel, navigation, and exploration, and are central to the imaginative, moral, and political geography of virtually every culture in the world. Yet they are far more subjective—and sometimes contradictory—than we might realize.

Four Points of the Compass takes us on a journey of directional discovery. Societies have understood and defined directions in very different ways based on their locations in time and space. Historian Jerry Brotton reveals why Hebrew culture privileges east; why Renaissance Europeans began drawing north at the top of their maps; why early Islam revered the south; why the Aztecs used five color-coded cardinal directions; and why no societies, primitive or modern, have ever orientated themselves westwards. In doing so, politically-loaded but widely used terms such as the “Middle East,” the “Global South,” the “West Indies,” the “Orient,” and even the “western world” take on new meanings. Who decided on these terms and what do they mean for geopolitics? How have directions like “east” and “west” taken on the status of cultural identities—or more accurately stereotypes?

Yet today, because of GPS capability, cardinal points are less relevant. Online, we place ourselves at the center of the map as little blue dots moving across geospatial apps; we have become the most important compass point, though in the process we’ve disconnected ourselves from the natural world. Imagining what future changes technology may impose, Jerry Brotton skillfully reminds us how crucial the four cardinal directions have been to everyone who has ever walked our planet. For anyone interested in history, geography, or surprising new ways to think about the world at large, Four Points of the Compass will be a stimulating experience.

Praise for The Sultan and the Queen:

“Jerry Brotton’s wonderful book reveals this instructive history of Protestant England’s intense interactions with Islam, showing how Muslims shaped English culture, consumerism and literature during the half-millennium between the Crusades and the rise of the British Empire in the Middle East.”—Wall Street Journal

“Elegant and entertaining.”—New York Times Book Review

The Sultan and the Queen evokes an England struggling to find a place for itself in a world that it had not yet learned to dominate, and often making colossal diplomatic blunders in the process. Brotton is a gifted writer who is able to present this history as an exciting series of critical and suspense-filled encounters.”—Washington Post

“Both a colorful narrative of that extraordinary time and a reminder that our own fortunes and those of the wider Islamic world have been intertwined for much longer than we might think.”—The Times (UK)

“Impressive and highly readable . . . Brotton’s book crackles with an energy that illuminates and vivifies its larger claims.”—Financial Times

“Jerry Brotton’s sparkling new book sets out just how extensive and complex England’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim world once was . . . Excellent.”—The Guardian

“Fascinating and timely . . . An illuminating account of a neglected aspect of Elizabethan England:  its rich, complex, and ambivalent relations with the Muslim world.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve

“An exceptionally rich and brilliant book. In bringing to life Elizabethan England’s ambivalent engagement with Islam, Jerry Brotton shows how profoundly that encounter shaped English trade, diplomacy, and the Islam-obsessed drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The story he tells could not be more timely.”—James Shapiro, author The Year of Lear: 1606

Praise for A History of the World in 12 Maps

New York Times Bestseller

“Maps allow the armchair traveler to roam the world, the diplomat to argue his points, the ruler to administer his country, the warrior to plan his campaigns and the propagandist to boost his cause. In addition, they can be extraordinarily beautiful . . . All these facets are represented in British historian Jerry Brotton’s rich A History of the World in 12 Maps.”—Wall Street Journal

“[A] brilliant exercise in global history.”—The Independent

“This history of twelve epoch-defining maps—including Google’s—is a revelation . . . Brotton offers an excellent guide to understanding these influential attempts at psychogeographical transcendence.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[A] rewarding journey for the intellectually intrepid.”—Kirkus Reviews

“If there’s a single takeaway from this fascinating and richly illustrated book, it’s that mapmaking is perennially contentious.”—The Daily Beast 

“A stimulating and thought-provoking study of how the mixing of science, politics, and even religion influenced and continues to influence cartography.”—Booklist

“Jerry Brotton’s book dips into maps spanning millennia of human experience, from Ptolemy’s Geography (circa 150 AD) all the way up to Google Earth, the dynamic, increasingly omnipresent Internet Age way that we answer the age-old question ‘Where am I?’ . . . Along the way, he finds some marvelous things.”—Christian Science Monitor