Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human by George Michelsen Foy

Reviewed by John Nystrom, Peru, Indiana – USA

cover picture of finding north

If George Foy’s rationale in Finding North could be reduced to a single formula, it would be, “life = movement = navigation.”  Foy starts with the scientific finding that the same structure in our brains responsible for memory is responsible for locating ourselves in space, and navigating that space safely.  Foy has written before on scientific subjects, but is primarily a teacher of creative writing at NYU, and a novelist.  There are some beautiful stretches of writing and good story telling in this book, but it can be fragmented and uneven, and the reasons crop up by the second chapter.

The second chapter opens: “I teach creative writing, and when my students ask me what they should write about I tell them, “Go back to your blackest fear and use that.”  This is not therapy, I hasten to add, but a way to get to the heart of what good writing is about, which is breaking down barriers, personal an otherwise, in order to understand and convey what makes you tick, how other people work.  It’s easy advice to give: I have found, from experience, it is somewhat harder to follow.” (p.13).  That is an understatement, because the author slips several times into full blown therapy/introspective befuddlement mode.  Foy connects a number of subjects to the phenomenon of navigation, but the one that becomes problematic is the navigation of memory, specifically for the author’s memories of his recently deceased brother, Louis.  Clearly Louis and George are close, and Louis was George’s frequent sailing companion.  Some of the memories fit and carry the story along, but others break in to leave the narrative ragged and disjointed.

That said, the other ‘aspects’ of navigation Foy explores are a great ride, and a wonder, to be sure.  A secret navigation cult in ancient Greece, including an off season trip to their Greek island home, how cells navigate to the correct position in our bodies during fetal development, how prospective cabbies learn to navigate the bizarrely complex streets of London, a trip to the classified navigational control center of America’s GPS satellite system, the complexities of relearning celestial navigation (or more correctly, learning how to do it accurately and consistently for the first time), navigating with traditional sailors in Haiti who use no navigation instruments or charts at all, the notion and practice of dead reckoning, and not one, but two voyages of ‘self-discovery’, one on the Gulf of Maine and the other to find the location and  solve the mystery of a 19th century ship sinking that claimed Foy’s great-great grandfather in Norway.  The author interacts with a lot of people along his way that are concerned with navigation of one sort or another, but the most interesting, and most controversial, questions he asks concern the findings of neuroscientists looking at the brain centers involving memory/emotion/navigation vs. stimulus/response centers, how Alzheimer’s effects the brain, and our reliance on electronics and GPS may be doing to our brains.  The question being asked is what happens to our brains when the tasks the brain is designed and evolved to do (spatial and mnemonic) are taken over by electronic devices?  Are our machines leading us into Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the memory?  Are we losing a key part (navigation) of what makes us human?  You can’t answer that in a book review or short article, so you’ll have to read the book for Foy’s take on the issues.

This book (spoiler alert) won’t solve any of those questions in under 300 pages, but the questions are being asked, and Finding North is about as entertaining a means to start exploring them as someone can come up with.  A bunch of supposedly smart people have given this book strong reviews, and most of the Amazon reviews are 5 stars (only one other reader and I gave it something a bit more realistic).  At about the second chapter I was ready to eviscerate this book, by a few more chapters was willing to give George the benefit of the doubt, and before the end decided this was worth the read.  George Foy is one of us; not a messabouter, but a guy who owns an old and ‘experienced’ sailboat that needs some loving care, but has a lot of nautical miles left in her.  As for those folks who gave the book 5 stars, I don’t think I’d want to take a long voyage on a small boat with any of them, but I would spend a week or more out on the water with George Foy and have a good time doing it.  I’m even going to track down some of his novels (probably the boat and water related ones) and expect that I just might have a pretty good time.

(Book review ended, and this is a bit of a side track, but here goes.  One way you might ‘classify’ boaters is what sort of magazine or reading material would you guess that practitioner of the nautical arts would be most drawn to; for example, would they pick up Boating or Megayacht as their first choice at the news stand, or go for Small Craft Advisor or Wooden Boat as first choice?  The boater who is reading Messing About In Boats or Duckworks is a whole different creature than the guy checking out the latest PWC reviews or who is drawn to a cover photo of the latest and most bizarre Clorox-bottle, whether sail powered or sporting four 300+ horse outboards on the transom.  My guess is that George M. Foy would be a Good Old Boat reader.  I like to think that puts him on our side, if you think of boating in those terms.  Not the kind of guy pulling a big wake in a no wake zone or ignoring the safety of other boaters.  End of rant.)

Flatiron Books, New York: 2016

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