A Sense of Where You Are Turns Out to Be Metaphorical

Inner Navigation: Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way , by Erik Jonsson. Scribner, 347 pages, $25.

Erik Jonsson’s Inner Navigation achieves within its first few pages something that few books manage to do at all: It isolates a subtle but universal strand of human experience-physical disorientation-and holds it up to scrutiny.

The author, who is Swedish, begins with an anecdote from his own life. He recalls arriving in Cologne in 1948 by overnight train and becoming confused about east and west to such an extent that the sun seemed to rise in the west and the Rhine to flow in the wrong direction. After several failed attempts to reorient himself, his discomfort was so acute that he left Cologne on the next train. “Our minds have a directional reference frame that we rely on to orient ourselves,” Mr. Jonsson writes, introducing his concept of cognitive mapping. “It is the mainstay of our spatial system. We know in which direction to go, but if we were asked how we know, we would have no answer . It is automatic … but when something goes wrong with it, we get in big trouble.”

For me, the effect of these opening remarks was galvanic: I felt like I’d slid open a forgotten drawer and found it stuffed with perfectly preserved memories-or perhaps they were merely refreshed by the new category in which Mr. Jonsson had induced me to place them. In the earliest, I’m 5 or 6 years old, playing with my stepsisters Marcia and Laura in the Wisconsin woods. A group of older boys careens onto the scene whooping threateningly; I have no idea who they are or what they want, but I’m filled with panic-I have no idea where I am. My surroundings are a mush of indecipherable green. As I stand paralyzed, I hear Marcia urging us to follow her, and we do, clambering over fallen logs, shoving aside skeins of ivy, blindly trailing her feints and leaps, the boys’ crashing pursuit some distance behind us until it fades away and we’re back on the road or trail, whatever it was, leading us to my mother, their father and our rented house. There’s a moral to the story, which I remember absorbing quite gravely even at the time: Marcia has a good sense of direction.

Another one: Summer again and I’m 15, wandering in Chicago with my friend Naomi, who has come to visit during the month I spend each summer with my father and his family. After hanging around in the Loop, we decide to walk to my father’s apartment building on North State Parkway. We begin on South State, presuming that south will eventually become north, and we walk and walk and walk, talking so avidly that we don’t notice for a very long time that the neighborhood surrounding us bears no resemblance to the one where my father lives. We pass abandoned buildings, pawn shops, the dregs of a building fire. I remember the slow, strange arrival of my confusion: There I was, having nearly reached my father’s exact address, but where was the building? Where was I? Had I been placed in another city? Eventually we approached a policeman, and he drove us in his squad car from deep in the flank of Chicago’s South Side to the North Side we’d been trying to reach.

There’s something inherently symbolic about being lost, which is why it can be so scary. Likewise, finding one’s way always brings greater relief than you’d expect from simply turning a corner to spy a familiar landmark. Though Mr. Jonsson doesn’t ask directly why this should be, he does supply an answer: “[W]e do not function in the real world when we move about in a familiar area,” he writes. “We function in the cognitive map we have made of it.” Losing and finding one’s bearings are metaphorical experiences, then, because they take place in a landscape that is itself pure metaphor.

In New York City, where I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life, I’m often troubled by a guilty, clandestine sense of not knowing where the hell I am. I’m O.K. inside the city itself, but when I imagine places beyond it- Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Illinois-I have no concept of where they might be. Nor can I shake my belief that the Atlantic Ocean lies just beyond the Hudson River. As I read Mr. Jonsson’s account of his trip to Cologne, I abruptly understood the reason for these many years of dislocation: Because I grew up in San Francisco, my internal compass assumes that the ocean is to the west and the rest of the nation to the east. My cognitive map has been reversed.

Mr. Jonsson’s publisher likens Inner Navigation to the best-selling Longitude , but despite their shared preoccupation with location and mapping, the books are nearly opposite in method. Where Longitude is a scientific adventure story, Inner Navigation is a taxonomy of disorientation. Mr. Jonsson presents anecdotes from his own or someone else’s life in which a person either moves through a landscape with preternatural skill or becomes inexplicably lost. Then he uses his theory of cognitive mapping to explain what went right or wrong, often including a diagram of the site in question to illustrate the divergence between the route intended and the one taken. Some of Mr. Jonsson’s observations are illuminating; he offers an inspired explanation of the Swedish legend of the Skogsnuva, or female wood nymph, who punishes travelers by forcing them to walk in circles. And he makes salient points about the challenges modern life poses to our spatial abilities, with its dislocations and paucity of context.

But there’s a maddening sameness to this book; nearly 300 pages in, we still encounter headings like “Misorientation in St. Anne’s College, Oxford” and “Reversal in El Centro Rest Area,” as if we ourselves had been seduced by the Skogsnuva and forced to walk in circles. Mr. Jonsson’s method is so exhaustive as to be exhausting. Still, he achieves precisely what he sets out to do: He examines every possible variant of cognitive mapping and codifies it all. The author himself is an antic, shadowy presence throughout the book, a man glimpsed as he takes wrong turns and searches for things he cannot find. I wish I could hear less about his thwarted itineraries and more about Erik Jonsson himself, but he’s chary with his personal history. I was stuck with bits of my own, revealed to me with odd, refreshing clarity.

Jennifer Egan is the author of Look at Me (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese).