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Book review of Yi-Fu Tuan's latest (last?)
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Social & Cultural Geography
ISSN: 1464-9365 (Print) 1470-1197 (Online) Journal homepage:
The Last Launch: Messages in the Bottle
Casey D. Allen
To cite this article: Casey D. Allen (2015): The Last Launch: Messages in the Bottle, Social &
Cultural Geography, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2015.1097058
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Published online: 16 Oct 2015.
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The last launch: messages in the bottle, by Yi-Fu Tuan, Staunton, VA,
George F. Thompson, 2015, 220 pp., US$29.50/€29.15/£19.48 (paperback),
ISBN 978-1-938086-28-1
I admit it. I am a Tuan fan. I have a deep respect for him, even though I have never met him per-
sonally, only catching a glimpse of him at a professional meeting one year. Tuanian Geography
has excited me since rst discovering’ him in grad school – pursuing geomorphology in the desert
at the time, just like Tuan did. After several articles and a couple of books, however, I noticed
the same metaphors, analogies, and stories being repeated. Each subsequent work breathed
the same soliloquies. I was hopeful when I saw his Romantic Geography book (2013), thinking it
would be dierent. Unfortunately, in that review (Allen 2015), I had to take him to task, because
the book quickly became bogged down in the mire of recycled prose, continued resurrection of
old themes, and old worn-out analogies and stories.
With that background in mind then, believe it when I say The Last Launch (perhaps his very last?)
was a reprieve from this previous behavior, surprising me with its candidness and non-repetitive
nature. It represents a solid personal reection of a still-active yet gentle, thoughtful, and generally
unassuming octogenarian. For those of us not lucky enough to have been formally guided by
Tuan academically, or even fortunate enough to ever chat over coee with him, this book helps
ll that gap. You get to know Tuan more personally and even unabashedly. To read this book is
to glimpse into his mind, get beneath the scholarly veneer, walk next to him (a very peripatetic
and necessary endeavor for the individual to gain a sense of their own place, he would remind
us), and learn about his past intimately rather than academically through his myriad of publica-
tions, a sterile Wikipedia entry, or even hearing secondhand stories from other people. The Last
Launch gives the reader a familiarity with Tuan as a person, an individual, the Man Himself, not just
as some esoteric geographer/philosopher/topophiliac, or one of the great minds of the world.
In his always (as I imagine him) humble and striving-for-goodness way, Tuan leads us through
his birth – being nine pounds and ‘above average…that is to say, fat’ (p. 27) – to his present
decision of moving from his beloved Science Hall oce and downtown condo to a retirement
community. He recounts stories of very modest beginnings, living through World War II, traveling
with his Minister of Foreign Aairs father and receiving high-prole visitors, attending Church
while at Oxford, traversing the US via Greyhound, and a very loving and dedicated brother.
Tuan weaves stories from his life into carefully selected sections on ‘Social Reality’, ‘Goodness’,
and ‘God, Christianity, and Religious Faith’, all favorite and familiar topics of inquiry for him. He
uses his breadth of knowledge regarding scholars and literature through the ages as always,
and perhaps his vast understanding is why so many of his books seem to restate the same in
very similar, sometimes exactly similar, vernacular. These sections, however, are not necessarily
a re-hashing of previous ideas but, instead, oer the reader more insight into himself, the indi-
vidual – which makes sense, since it is a memoir, after all. Graciously peppered throughout The
Last Launch are tales oering readers a chance to peer behind his personal veil more closely, and
most each section remains couched in a personal sketch, written with what seems to be a twinkle
in his eye. Tuan knows the secret, the answer to the question (whatever they are), and he imparts
them as ‘Messages to the Young’, a section that reads half as unwanted-yet-necessary fatherly
advice and half as a graduation the-future-is-yours commencement speech.
If there is a fault in this book, it is small, and probably in the ‘Revelations of Self’ section, where
Tuan’s publisher suggested he outline his favorite books, arts, places, and achievements. There are
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long lists – very long lists – exemplifying the kind of scholar Tuan is: well-read and knowledgeable.
But, restoratively, there are also lists of his favorite poetry, dance, music, and movies (including
an admission that he enjoys action movies …such as…James Bond and Jason Bourne’, p. 176),
keeping him well-grounded, even though such details make him feel ‘naked’ (p. 163). To wrap
up the section (and book), he examines his numerous awards, the ‘height of vulgarity’ (p. 183)
as he calls them, recounting each with a vivid clarity and caring yarn, tying together his humble
goodness persona with his scholarly mightiness.
This book, more than any of his others I would say, oers the reader a more complete portrait
of who Tuan is, his origins that helped shape his being. We know Tuan the Geographer, Tuan the
Scholar, Tuan the Humanist. But what we often miss, and this is true for most great people, is the
person as a person. This book fullls that role. It represents a storied, remarkable, and exceptional
eld trip (life is the grandest kind of all, Tuan would say) that ends just as wholesome, innocent,
wide-eyed, and unassuming as it began.
This may seem like a personal, and therefore dierent, kind of book review. Yet that represents
the foundation of Tuanian ideals: the personal, the individual, the exploration, the discovery, the
connection. And I like to believe that Tuan would approve.
Allen, C. (2015). Romantic geography: In search of the sublime landscape. AAG Review of Books, 3, 60–62.
Casey D. Allen
Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences
University of Colorado Denver, Denver, USA
© 2015 Casey D. Allen
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