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FINDING NORTH: How Navigation Makes Us Human
A gripping personal and scientific odyssey to discover how humans navigate landscape, life, emotions, memory—and everything else
Navigation is the key human skill. It’s something we do everywhere, whether feeling our way through a bedroom in the dark, or charting a ship’s course. But how does navigation affect our brains, our memory, ourselves? Blending scientific research and memoir, and written in beautiful prose, Finding North starts with a quest by the author to understand this most basic of human skills—and why it’s in mortal peril.
In 1844, Foy’s great-great grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, perished at sea after getting lost in a snowstorm. Foy decides to unravel the mystery surrounding Halvor Michelsen’s death—and the roots of his own obsession with navigation—by re-creating his ancestor’s trip using only period instruments.
Beforehand, he meets a colorful cast of characters to learn whether men really have better directional skills than women, how cells, eels, and spaceships navigate; and how tragedy results from GPS glitches. He interviews a cabby who has memorized every street in London, sails on a Haitian cargo sloop, and visits the site of a secret navigational cult in Greece. As Foy unravels the secret behind Halvor’s death, he also discovers why forsaking our navigation skills in favor of GPS may lead not only to Alzheimers and other diseases of memory, but to losing a key part of what makes us human.
George Michelsen Foy is the author of Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence and twelve critically acclaimed novels. He was a recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship in fiction and his articles, reviews, and stories have been published by Rolling Stone, the Boston Globe, Harper’s, the New York Times, and Men’s Journal, among others. He teaches creative writing at NYU and is married with two children. Foy divides his time between coastal Massachusetts and New York.
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Praise for Finding North:
“Deep waters and deep thoughts fill these pages. With skillful prose and insight, Foy’s account of the different aspects of navigation packs a powerful punch.” —Publishers Weekly
“Armchair sailors will enjoy the vicarious thrills of Foy’s brief journeys, and even those with no intentions of abandoning their smartphones will find something to ponder in his speculations about the challenges of gadget-free navigation.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A fascinating and sobering look at how partaking of the fruit of easy GPS navigation may be changing ourselves in ways we don’t fully realize.”—Ocean Navigator Magazine
“Finding North takes readers on a journey around the world and deep into the nature of how humans find their way around. It’s a voyage that is both personal and expansive, exploring how navigation works and its meaning in people’s lives.” —Andrew Johnston, author of Time and Navigation and Earth from Space
“With engaging and personal prose, George Michelsen Foy explores the history, natural history, and—most critically—the vital importance for us today of navigation. In an age when we too often rely on technology to tell us where we are and where we’re going, Foy's compelling story asks at what cost? What do we lose when we allow our skills of navigation—earned through centuries of finding our way in a wild and sometimes foreboding world—to fade? As we careen further into a century of global change, Foy shows how in a world of ‘mystery and fear, and the near certainty of loss,’ we will need these skills of navigation more than ever.” —Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night
“George Foy frames his story of the history and practice of navigation with a hazardous personal sea voyage in a ship that might not be in good enough repair to make the trip. It's a wonderful device which he also uses to chart a difficult navigational path through his inner world—his seafaring ancestors; the tragic loss of his brother; his family; and his fears. And all of this is delivered in sensible, warm, and intelligent prose. Voyagers of all kinds will cherish this book.” —Paul Raeburn, author of The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting and Do Fathers Matter?
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