X Marks the Spot


I suspect that Treasure Island, the adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, is not much read these days. In my youth, it was one of the “classics” that teachers put on the acceptable reading list for book reports.

I’m not sure now if I read the novel or saw one of  the movie adaptations first (probably the 1950 Disney version). I definitely read the Classics Illustrated comic version. (A series that started me on many a classic work of fiction.)

It is probably still considered a book for young people, but I suspect the vocabulary and sentence structures of most of those classics would be a tough reading assignment for today’s young readers.

As a lover of islands and of maps, the book had both those elements going for it. I certainly didn’t think of it back then as a “coming-of-age” story and commentary on morality, though it’s that too. For me, and most readers, it is an adventure tale. Young Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and the pirates seemed to live a pretty cool life.

Reading it today, a kid would think it ripped off all the many versions that have come since – some with the Treasure Island name, some with other names. But Stevenson was the original for many pirate standards such as a treasure map marked with an “X”, schooners and one-legged sailors with parrots on their shoulders.

But the map of the island fascinated me. The hardcover edition I read had a map as the inside covers and I studied it and copied it and then modified it. I made many treasure maps as a kid. Some were imaginary places. Some were my neighborhood places. Years later, I had my students make literary maps of novels we read in class.

Stevenson’s map

Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired for novel by a painting he had made while playing with his stepson.  In the introduction to one of the editions to the novel, he wrote:

stevenson“On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’ I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe. The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and the ferries, perhaps the Standing Stone or the Druidic Circle on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or twopence-worth of imagination to understand with! No child but must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with fairy armies.”

He said that just staring at the map made the book “appear.” He could see characters, the woods, fights and hunting treasure, and he started outlining chapters.

64 treasure island


I am still up for a treasure hunt, if anyone is interested.

Do I Have to Draw You a Diagram?

Vitruvian Man - da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci’s very famous “Vitruvian Man” sketch, and the notes that go with it, show how he understood the proportions of the human body. The head measured from the forehead to the chin was exactly one tenth of the total height, and the outstretched arms were always as wide as the body was tall.

I think everyone is a visual thinker and learner to some degree. How could you not be in this highly visual world we live in. I remember when the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was published in 1979 that it got me (and plenty of other people) thinking about the whole right/left brain thinking ideas.

Although the book was meant as a way to give people confidence in their ability to draw and deepen your artistic perception of the world, it ignited a lot of discussion about the fairly new theory of left-brain or right-brain dominance. I know that some of that theory has been shown to be untrue since then, but there is no doubt that each side of the brain controls different functions and types of thinking.

The theory proposed that people will prefer one type of thinking over the other. So, a “left-brained” person was said to be more logical, analytical and objective. In her book, Betty Edwards was attempting to get people to draw – both in the sense of “to pull” and ” to make lines and marks” –  on the “right-brain” which is supposed to be the more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective side.

In psychology, this theory (lateralization of brain function) seems to be considered more of a “myth with a basis in fact” that became distorted and exaggerated in popular culture. Roger W. Sperry is given credit for the initial research (he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981) while studying the effects cutting the corpus collosum (the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) to reduce or eliminate seizures in people with epilepsy.

Which is all preface to a book I have been reading called 100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod. It is an interesting collection of  what might be considered the most significant plans, sketches, drawings, and illustrations that have influenced the way we think about the world.

There are primitive cave paintings and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the DNA helix drawn by Crick and Watson and sketches and plans for the iPod. The book works its way chronologically through the diagrams (the generic term for all of them) and has text about what scientific significance each one has had on our thinking.


I used to do some basic right/left brain discussion with my students and talk to them about the related topic of learning styles. I would start by asking them to consider a simple everyday situation. If you needed directions to my house, would you prefer that I: draw you a map, tell you the directions, or write out those directions? Simple visual, verbal/auditory and verbal/written options. There were always students in each option, but the majority tended to be in favor of a map. Of course, these days they just say “I’ll just use my GPS.” And then I point out that the GPS does offer all three options, as does your Google Map.

The Left-Brain, Right-Brain Quiz is more for fun, but would  help you determine your “brain type” and is meant for students to improve study habits. It suggests some study tips for left-brained students and right-brained students.

How often do you use a diagram to think through or illustrate something to someone else or for your own use?

Scott Christianson, author of the 100 Diagrams book, says diagram comes from Latin diagramma (figure) and Greek for a figure worked out in lines, from diagraphein, from graphein to write.  First known use of the word in English is 1619 as meaning “a plan, a sketch, drawing, outline, not necessarily representational, designed to demonstrate or explain something or clarify the relationship existing between the parts of the whole.”

Treasure Island Map (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883)

Although Robert Louis Stevenson seems to have totally invented the idea of a pirates’ treasure map where “X marks the spot” of the hidden booty, the fictional device of a map certainly got my attention when I read the book as a kid. And maps of other imaginary places– like maps of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the Star Wars universe – continue to fuel readers’ imaginations.

One other book that I have used in class to talk about visual thinking and visual learning (not the same thing) is The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures.

The author, Dan Roam, promotes picking  up a pencil and drawing out the pieces of a problem. He’s talking about using diagrams to help our own thinking, but also sees them as sometimes more powerful than that slick PowerPoint presentation. The book also has some of what has been discovered in “vision science” lately.

Like Betty Edwards, he believes that we all have a talent for visual thinking, even if you maintain that you can’t draw. And he shows how thinking with pictures can help you discover and develop new ideas, solve problems in unexpected ways, and dramatically improve your ability to share your insights.

That simple diagram of how Copernicus envisioned our solar system was truly revolutionary. It got Galileo thinking and writing and really pissed off the Pope and the church because it questioned the idea that Earth and so “we” were not the center of the “universe” as it was known. And the diagram is just concentric circles.

Heliocentric Universe (Nicolaus Copernicus, 1543) shows Copernicus’s revolutionary view of the universe which placed the Sun and not the Earth at the center of the universe and contradicted 14th-century beliefs.

Think about how teachers and students, project managers, doctors, engineers, pilots, coaches, financial analysts, lawyers and others use diagrams for problem solving.  Those 100 historic diagrams are important, but in the back-of-the-napkin approach it’s more about brainstorming and communicating with pictures than it is about producing a final product.

Roam’s book was popular enough to get a follow-up companion workbook, Unfolding the Napkin which is more hands-on and has step-by-step guidelines and exercises and space for drawing. The book seems to be based on a four-day visual-thinking seminar the author must do.

There is that expression, “Do I have to draw you a picture?” but maybe it should more correctly be, “Do I have to draw you a diagram?”