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The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  1,244 ratings  ·  175 reviews
"Old maps lead you to strange and unexpected places, and none does so more ineluctably than the subject of this book: the giant, beguiling Waldseemuller world map of 1507." So begins this remarkable story of the map that gave America its name. For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. They drew the three continents ...more
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published November 3rd 2009 by Free Press
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Popular Answered Questions
Carrie Emmerson I'm afraid it's too late for you, but here are some questions I conjured up for my book club. Feel free to use/adapt as you like!

1. What are your thou…more
I'm afraid it's too late for you, but here are some questions I conjured up for my book club. Feel free to use/adapt as you like!

1. What are your thoughts re: the book? (keep reading, they get better)

2. What did you learn?

3. What surprised you?

4. Should the continents be (or have been called) called "America"? If not, what would be a better name, and why?

5. What do you think were the most important/compelling forces driving Europeans west? (feel free to reference the standard God, Glory, Gold or something else)

6. Do the humanists deserve the most credit for driving the new conception of the world, or other forces? Explain.

7. Why do you think exploration and discovery happened when it did? And why by the people who did it?

8. Similarly, why was the map made when and where it was, by whom it was?

9. Spain or Portugal - who's worse?

10. There was a very complex relationship between explorers and their sponsors during this time period, and multiple forces driving exploration. Which force do you think was the strongest, and why?


Community Reviews

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Start your review of The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name
May 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I read history books the way others read genre fiction. Some of them are well-written and some not, some well-sourced and some not. Sometimes a book claiming to be a work of historical scholarship is actually a political screed. When I read one well-written, well-sourced, and about a subject not often tread, I am in my happy place. The Fourth Part of the World is one of those books and it's about maps.

To be precise, it is about one map: the first map in the world to name the New World "America."
Dec 17, 2009 rated it liked it
'The Fourth Part of the World', Toby Lester, 2009. All to often, the keepers of knowledge, -the academics, intellectuals and scholars, are sadly crippled by verbose, pompous, unreadable writing skills. Occasionally It takes an outsider, a professional writer such as Toby Lester, to attack a subject with freshness and enthusiasm. The catalyst for "The Forth Part of The World" was the purchase by The Library of Congress of the Waldseemuller world map of 1507, for the incredible sum of ten million ...more
Rex Fuller
Mar 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Let’s see, although Balboa crossed Panama to a large body of water in 1513, nobody in Europe knew there was a true ocean on the other side of South America until Magellan sailed around Cape Horn and across the Pacific in 1521. So, how could some German monks in eastern France (of all places) make a map in 1507 showing the continent surrounded by water and call it “America?” The reason, believe it or not, is “sex sells.” How it happened is an amazing story, very well told by Toby Lester in “The F ...more
Feb 14, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: science-nature
I decided not to travel just once on a very long journey by ship or on horse or on foot to those lands, but many times on a tiny map with books and the imagination. -- Petrarch

Well, I am often that way. And this book did take me places and show me things. I learned that the 'silk trade involved vast amounts of labor and expense and travel for the singularly frivolous purpose,' according to Pliny the Elder, 'to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public.' I'm guessing Pliny
Nov 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I love this book--in the interest of full disclosure I edited it at the Free Press--but I've been crazy about it since I saw the proposal ages ago. When the Library of Congress bought the 1507 Waldseemüller map from the German government for $10 million, they sent out a press release that crossed Toby’s desk at the Atlantic where he was Deputy managing editor. He thought the map’s drawing and rediscovery after four centuries might make a nice little article, even a short book, but closer examina ...more
N.E. White
Sep 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
In 1507, new world maps were something of a booming business. The Portuguese had been discovering more about Africa for decades, the Spanish had recently found a number of islands, and a larger landmass across the Atlantic, and the English had found a long shoreline to the west of Greenland.

Since Asia was mostly known to be a northerly continent, that last was still presumed to be part of Asia, but the Spanish mainland, in the tropics, was starting to look like something else again. In 1507 a ne
Sep 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those books calculated to warm the heart of a cartographer and excite the pulse of an historian. Since I am both, I loved it! It's like one of those Simon Winchester books that takes many seemingly unrelated events and people, and shows how they came together to produce a history-changing result.

The book purports to be the story of the 1517 Waldseemüller map, on which the name "America" was first applied to the New World. In fact, it's the history of the way Europe's perception of
Dec 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
At first I wondered how Lester was going to fill 400 pages with the story of the Waldseemuller map. I'm glad I stuck around to find out--instead of just the story of a map, I was treated to a wonderful exploration of an evolving worldview--just HOW our modern conception of the continents began to dawn upon the Europeans in the beginning of the age of exploration. From Mongol hordes to monasteries, humanists to self-promoting explorers, Lester lays it all out with style. Very rewarding 400 pages ...more
Dec 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
In 2003, the Library of Congress paid $10 million to purchase the sole surviving copy of the Waldseemüller map of 1507. One of the earlier maps to to incorporate new data gleaned from the voyages of Columbus and Vespucci, it is said to be the first map to name a place called America. When it was purchased, it was nicknamed "America's birth certificate."

This is the story of that map--but not only that because Toby Lester tells a thousand stories in this book! Incredibly detailed it basically pre
Jan 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Really good read, lots of great historical information with lots of great source material. I have more books I now need to read. The book flows very well, with a great cast of historical figures they never taught us about in school.
Well worth the time.
Sep 19, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
This is a detailed history of the paired development of geography and cartography through the middle ages, the Renaissance rediscovery of classical texts, the so-called "Age of Discovery," and the early 16th century. I bookmarked too many pages containing interesting facts and insights to be able to share them.

The conventional wisdom about what Europeans did and didn't know about the earth is picked apart here. As with so many issues of the early modern era, we see a bizarre juxtaposition of th
Nov 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
a fantastic book on the history of the Waldseemuller map and much much more. Looks at maps and humanists from 1200's to 1500's, delves into the movement of people both physically and intellectually plus so much more. as simon winchester says in blurb "lester..create[s] a masterpiece of cartographic literature that will be of lasting importance". agreed by little ol me (though he DOES only concentrate on european maps and intellectual history to the detriment of all other ideas, from say asia, af ...more
Aug 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Jeff by: Mark Spiers
Shelves: world-history
One of the most entertaining and informative books I've read in some time, can't say enough about how much I enjoyed reading it. Names from grade-school days like Vespucci, Marco Polo, Copernicus, Genghis Khan, da Gama and Columbus collide and come alive here, their adventures, exploits and discoveries richly recounted and complemented by plenty of ancient maps and illustrations (The graphics are perhaps the best part of this book.)

Our world is mapped and digitized to the extent one can know hi
Sep 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is my first reading of a non fiction book and I really enjoyed it. Possibly because I just visited the Library of Congress and saw the WALDSEEMULLER Map. My guide recommended this book because it tells the story of how the map came about and how it was found. Research revealed that the map had been made but no one could find one. People hunted for one for hundreds of years until one was finally found in 1901 in an obscure castle in Germany. Finally in 2007, USA paid 1 million dollars for it ...more
Jenny T
Nov 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, read-in-2009
A delicious, well-written book about the history of map-making as it relates to the "discovery" of the Americas. The author begins by introducing the most expensive historical document ever purchased publicly: the Waldseemuller map of 1507 (the first map to label "America" as such)--bought by the Library of Congress for 10 million dollars--2 million more than was paid for the Declaration of Independence...

From there, the author discusses the history of maps, from ancient times through the invent
Bookmarks Magazine
Feb 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: mar-apr-2010
Many reviewers stressed early on that Lester's book offers more of a historical detective story than a narrative built around exciting characters of the past. But they were also consistently impressed with the way he could draw in readers by bringing together what might otherwise seem to be a miscellaneous collection of observations and tales. Above all, critics came away impressed with the way that all maps provide insight into the character of a culture. All the more true, then, for one as imp ...more
May 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This book is a masterpiece. Starting with a few questions about a once lost map, Lester stretches the canvas, so to speak, and draws us into a broader discussion of early cartography and the Age of Discovery. He brilliantly connects seemingly disparate events; the writing of Ptolemy’s seminal Geography, the Mongol conquest, Marco Polo's journeys, and Magellan’s Voyage all fall into place like the pieces of a perfect mosaic. This is History at its best. Rather than feeling like a doctoral thesis ...more
Jon Fish
Aug 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
An amazing, accessible account of the European quest to understand the geography of the world in the Middle Ages. Every paragraph contains some new piece of information that forced me to rethink my perceptions of Medieval Europeans, geography, religion, and history. If nothing else, read this book to shake the notion that Medieval Europeans thought the world was flat until Columbus, and that explorers like Columbus, Polo, and Vespucci were altruistic voyagers with a thirst for truth like academi ...more
Dec 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This was one of the best sourced, well written, informative books I have ever read. It covers a broad range of time and fills in so many gaps in history. Instead of glossing over minuscule historic events, it delves into them revealing history that I had never even heard of. Or if I had, I had always heard it incorrectly.
This book is now on my top 3 historical book list. It has opened up an entire world of history and people for me to learn even more about.
I was intrigued throughout the entire
Dec 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: history buffs
Recommended to Ken by: librarian
When I read the subtitle of this book, I expected to be let down a little. I was not. This was truly an epic story about the naming of America. Forget all you know about the discovery of the New World. Unbelievably detailed, and written in an authoritative narrative, Toby Lester reconstructs the mapping of the world from medieval days in a way that will challenge the modern mind to look at the world in a different way.
Oct 14, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a good read chock a block full of history - great kings and khans, the voyages to the "Indies" , the familiar explorers and not so familiar, the maps and map makers, the philosophers, the primary documents lost and found. This is a intriguing cartographical journey and it begins with a beloved word: America.

The book has a wonderful set of illustrations so much so I wished I were reading the hard back edition.
Wesley Fryer
Dec 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I absolutely loved this book! I heard Lester speak at a Google Geo-Teacher's Institute in Maine in September. This book fuses history, geography, economics, and politics together in a delightful tale. I learned a great deal about the Age of Exploration as a result of reading it. Definite five stars. Super book! ...more
Nov 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I loved this book. I'm not a big non fiction reader. This book was fascinating from the beginning. Ancient maps, how they were created, how America got it's name. It's all in here. ...more
Adam Wilsman
Prologue- Discusses 1507 map in which America is given its name. Among first to see that America was distinct and not a part of Asia and seemingly predicted its being surrounded by water almost ten years before the pacific was discovered.

It wasn't until Columbus' third voyage that he set foot on the continent: Venezuela in 1498. It was only in 1513 after Vasco Nunez de Balboa had first caught sight if the Pacific that Europeans began to conceive of the new world as a separate continent. Columbus
Keith Parrish
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
The Age of Exploration has always fascinated me. This is an era when when men with dash, panache and derring-do set out in the name of the three G's (as we learned them) - God, Gold, and Glory (not necessarily in that order). Prince Henry the Navigator sending his Portuguese explorers along the coast of Africa, farther and farther south until they found the elusive water route to Asia. The Spanish countering by sending Columbus westward. Much of this, of course is very simplified history, but th ...more
John Vanek
Aug 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
After the opening chapter described the discovery and importance of the Waldseemuller Map, I thought Lester had already fulfilled the book's title. But there is so much more here!

So what is it? At base, The Fourth Part of the World is a cultural history of European cartography and exploration. Lester's goal is to describe all of the ideas represented in--and influenced by--the 1507 Waldseemuller map. And he achieves it.

I love books like this that pull together wide-ranging ideas and events int
Dec 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well-written story of the map and geographical world of Europe as it changed from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. This is a history of ideas, not the story of any specific explorer, but the story of the intellectual undercurrents of a Europe grappling with the meaning of the discoveries made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It’s a narrow story, but very well-told with tight writing and well-drawn characters. As a former Early Modern European grad student, I was surprised by how mu ...more
George Sink
Jun 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was one of the most interesting books I've read on the history of how we as people have thought about the world we walk upon, as well as how we've mapped it through the centuries. It walks through history from antiquity to the late 1500s, focusing on the Greek, Roman, and European experience, and for me was written in a style that flowed incredibly well. It was easy to read while being quite informative. The intellectual tradition that spurred on the Renaissance is shown to have its roots h ...more
Dec 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Very enjoyable listen. It is about the period of naval exploration. Many navigators made an estimate that there must be an as yet undiscovered part of the world - looking at a map, if Europe, Africa and Asia, it seemed a part was missing.
This text introduces a great number a explorers over two centuries that sought backing from the wealthy monarchs.
The investments are made with great caution, often just traveling a few hundred kilometres farther than the known world. It's a long time, and dozens
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I'm a journalist, an editor, and an independent scholar. Most recently, I'm the author of Da Vinci's Ghost (2012), about Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name. I'm also a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, for whom I've written extensively, on such topics as the reconstruction of ancient Greek music, the revisionist ...more

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