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The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America Paperback – July 6, 2010

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: Simon Winchester Reviews The Fourth Part of the World

Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and later became an award-winning journalist, and author of more than a dozen books. He has written for The Guardian, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and has reviewed books for The New York Times. His bestselling titles include: The Man Who Loved China, The Professor and the Madman, and Krakatoa. The author divides his time between his home in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland. Read Simon Winchester’s exclusive Amazon guest review of The Fourth Part of the World:

Books about obscure and unobvious commercial subjects, written with passion by stylish enthusiasts, have come in recent years to provide us a canon of the most valuable and lasting literature. Toby Lester, who appears to be a master of the language and a man evidently as inquisitive as a ferret, has written a quite wonderful book about something that is, yes, obscure and unobvious commercial--but which is a tale quite vital to anyone interested in knowing the story of this country. It is about the naming of America, and the creation of a document that has been lately and justly called this country's birth-certificate.

The document is a map--and so Mr. Lester's book is in essence about cartography, and sixteenth century cartography at that, a specialist's dream. But the tale of the making and then the hiding and the losing and the finding of this extraordinary and very large document--it called the Waldseemüller Map, and it now belongs to the Library of Congress--is sufficiently exciting to be almost unbearably thrilling. And anyone who can make cartography thrill deserves a medal, at the very least.

The mapmakers in question were German: Martin Waldseemüller and his poetically-inclined colleague, Mathias Ringmann. Come the beginning of the sixteenth century, and working in southern France these two, like many in the European intellectual world, were beginning to hear rumors that a new continent had lately been found, halfway between Spain and Japan. (This was fifteen years after Columbus, who still had no clue what he had found in 1492--to his dying day he insisted that he had merely found a hitherto unknown piece of Asia.)

The rumors swiftly became accepted fact: in the early 1500s the pair came across two printed accounts of the alleged new continent--accounts that were prolix, flamboyant, unreliable and in parts very saucy (there was material relating to the cosmetic self-mutilation, anal cleanliness and sexual practices of the locals) written by a colourful Italian explorer and sorcerer named Amerigo Vespucci. Crucially Vespucci claimed in one of these papers that “on this last voyage of mine…I have discovered a continent in those southern regions that is inhabited by more numerous peoples than in our Europe, Asia or Africa, and in addition I found a more pleasant and temperate climate than in any other region known to us…”

As it happened, the mapmakers had already been commissioned to create a new world map--and so on it, they both agreed after reading Vespucci's accounts, they would now draw this new body of land, and they would give it a name. After some head-scratching they agreed the name should be the feminine form of the Latinised version of Amerigo Vespucci's Christian name: the properly feminine place-nouns of Africa, Asia and Europe would now be joined, quite simply, by a brand-new entity that they would name America.

And so, in 1507, their map was duly published; and in large letters across the southern half of the southern continental discovery, just where Brazil is situated today, was the single word: America. It was written in majuscule script, was a tiny bit crooked, curiously out of scale and looking a little last-minute and just a little tentative--but nevertheless and incontrovertibly, it was there.

It caught on: a globe published in Paris in 1515 placed the word on both segments of the continent, north and south. The word was published in many books in central Europe--Strasbourg in 1509, Poland in 1512, Vienna in 1520; it was found in a Spanish book in 1520. In Strasbourg, five years later, another book lists 'America' as one of the world's regions and finally, in 1538, Mercator, the new arbiter of the planet's geography, placed the names North America and South America squarely on the two halves of the fourth continent. And with that, the name was secure; and it would never be changed again.

Toby Lester has done American history the greatest service by writing this elegant and thoughtful account of the one morsel of cartographic history that would shake the world's foundations. We are told that this is his first book: may we hope that he writes many more, for his is a rare and masterly talent. --SW

(Photo © Setsuko Winchester)

Discover the Waldseemüller World Map from The Fourth Part of the World
Click on image to enlarge

Click to discover the Waldseemüller map legend

This legend highlights an idea that's almost completely forgotten today: that the New World was remarkable to Europeans in 1507 because it lay not just to the west but also to the south. Read more

The portrait shown here is an idealized depiction of the ancient Greek sage Claudius Ptolemy. Read more

The portrait shown here, an obvious companion to the portrait of Ptolemy to its left, is an idealized portrait of Amerigo Vespucci...Read more

Here, printed in block letters on what we know today as Brazil, is the first use of the name America on a map. Read more

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With the excitement and exhilaration of an explorer, Atlantic contributor Lester sets off on his own journey of discovery across the seas of cartography and history. In 2003, the Library of Congress paid $10 million for the only existing copy of the 1507 map that was the first to show the New World and call it America. Lester ranges over the history of cartography, such as the zonal maps of the Middle Ages that divided the world into three parts—Africa, Europe and Asia. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, working with a small group of scholars in a small town in eastern France produced their map, based on Amerigo Vespucci's voyages to the West and discovery of South America. In just a few decades the Waldseemüller map was out of date, but its world-changing status lived on, and in 1901 a Jesuit priest, poking around a small German castle, stumbled on a copy. Lester traces the map's journey to America over the next century in a majestic tribute to a historic work. First serial to Smithsonian magazine. (Nov. 3)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (July 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416535349
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416535348
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #680,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Toby Lester is a contributing editor to and has written extensively for The Atlantic. A former Peace Corps volunteer and United Nations observer, he lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters. His first book, The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name, was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Award and was picked as a Book of the Year by several other publications. His second book, Da Vinci's Ghost, about Leonardo's famous drawing of a man in a circle and a square, reached the New York Times extended bestseller list. His work has also appeared on the radio program This American Life.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

92 of 95 people found the following review helpful By Chris Thompson on November 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Simon Winchester's review above does not give this book justice, although I must say that Lester's ability to spin a great story around an arcane subject may rival Winchester's. To me this book is about so much more than the naming of America on a map - it is really about the process of discovery and enlightenment and the pitfalls and pratfalls along the way. I ordered the book in an attempt to research an even more arcane issue I did not find in the book, but was immediately captivated by the exposition, and set my current book aside to read this to completion.

The title of the book could maybe not be more cryptic or off-putting, but don't let that deter you. The Fourth Part of the World refers to the somewhat mythical, yet actual undiscovered lands (after Asia, Europe and Africa) described by the ancients which we know now as America. Lester spins an exhaustively researched yet page-turning story of how this mythical land was gradually given substance and shape by explorers and cartographers. That the mapmakers at the center of the story write "America" on their map is almost incidental to the story. The great story, which Lester tells so wonderfully well, is how incredibly important world maps effected the philosophy of the day. Lester makes the case that it was this map that caused Copernicus to form his theory of the Universe, which if true, is far more significant than simply naming America.

For the average reader like me, this book will fill in a lot of the gaps in your learning about the age of exploration, and possibly give insight to the shortfalls and missteps we continue to repeat while exploring new domains without the proper "map".

"The Fourth Part of the World" is truly not an arcane subject, and it's a wonderful read.
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57 of 58 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A six-star book, and one of my favorite book discoveries of the year. This is the kind of book that makes me wish that Amazon allowed us to award an extra bonus star to truly outstanding works.

Remember all those hours we all spent in classrooms, at least one of which had a world map spread out across one wall, and how familiar that world came to look to us, with the Atlantic separating the Americas from the vast landmass of Europe and Asia, and Africa extending south between the Atlantic and Indian oceans? Well, in this fascinating and lively history, Toby Lester tells us how -- over the course of many centuries -- that map and the shape of the world it presents came to be understood and accepted, and how slowly and painfully that process was. Even more intriguing, it's the story of how a world view evolved over even more centuries; of how Europeans who once saw themselves as inhabiting a tiny island surrounding by vast amounts of ocean, with Jerusalem -- as their holy city -- at its center, came to understand the implications of voyages of discovery on foot, horseback and eventually by sea for their view of geographical reality.

Travelers began to venture from Europe into unknown lands centuries before the map at the heart of this book that first identified America as a separate continent and named it after Amerigo Vespucci was first printed in eastern France in 1507. Those who came back -- Papal envoys from the Mongol court, Marco Polo from China and the East Indies -- had wondrous tales to spin -- but where, exactly, was it that they had been? Mapmakers scrambled to keep up.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By lifetime learner on November 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is my favorite book of the year. I am giving it to friends and family for Christmas. It is the story of the map that named America -- a remarkable map that is now the central feature in the lobby of the Library of Congress in Washington. But, told engagingly by Toby Lester, it is also a story of intrigue, deception, sex, and bribery -- the story of competition among early explorers and their patrons to find and document ( and mis-document) new worlds. A remarkable achievement.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Minnow on May 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Fourth Part of the World is a 300 year journey (~1200 to ~1500) that tells the story of how Medieval Europe came from thinking of the world as, literally, a "T" inscribed within a circle (how bizarre is that) to thinking about it as we do now. That process of intellectual and physical discovery involved many curious characters mixing it up with history in wonderful ways. Toby Lester loves a good story and writes it vividly. For example, Mr. Lester clearly feels it's no fun at all to say, "Leading humanists acquired a copy of Ptolemy's Geography in 1397" and leave it at that. Wikipedia can do as well. Mr. Lester wants to tell us 'how' that book gets to Florence, and then uses his sparking prose to polish and cut a gem of a story.

We learn about how Florence's humanist Chancellor, Salutati sent an aspiring student of Greek, Jacopo Angeli da Scarperi, to slip into Constantinople, currently being besieged by the Turks, to lure Manuel Chrysoloras to Italy to teach the Florentines Greek. Chrysoloras takes the job, escapes the city and brings a copy of Ptolemy's Geography with him. Within a few pages, personalities are developed, motives explored, and actions are set firmly into the overarching story of how America got its name. He relates these gems page after page; it's a winning formula that keeps the reader entertained from start to finish.

This is not to say that Mr. Lester neglects the forest for the trees, for he brings it all into focus -- his thoughts on the larger picture are just as interesting and help you keep the arc of the story in mind even as your read about an fat friar who rode across thousands of miles of steppes to parlay with the Great Khan...

I think that Mr.
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