The World is Not in Your Books and Maps

Stacks of books

In the opening scene of The Hobbit Bilbo is writing a draft of a book and poring over maps in his study. While Bilbo is immersed in his thoughts, Gandalf is in the process of drawing Bilbo into an adventure. But Bilbo is uninterested. Exasperated, Gandalf admonishes Bilbo with, “The world is not in your books and maps…It’s out there!”

I identify with Bilbo. I love studying books and maps. I have few possessions that I truly cherish, but among them are my personal library and, most importantly, the study Bible I’ve used for 35 years. Recently, I’ve also been developing an interest in old books.

I don’t have a collection of maps, but whenever I see a map, I am naturally drawn to it. I get lost in the map, enjoying all its details. I am somehow fascinated by two-dimensional representations of a 3-D world. Many maps are also fascinating in their creative methods for presenting information beyond geographical features.

I think we all agree that books are important. All contain information. Many contain knowledge and some contain wisdom. One book, the Bible, is the story of God’s love for us. Many books tell stories of the successes and failures of others. They can be an important element of learning (although not the most important). Many books also contain stories of pretend people, events, and worlds (but I don’t read many of those.)

Since books seem to be so great, what’s their downside? Books are not dynamic or interactive. They don’t change in real time as a reflection of emerging reality. (Although this technology exists in the form of the World Wide Web, but let’s set aside that point for now.) I was reading a book recently that presented information about an historical event as it was understood then. A number of years later, new information about that event had become available and the point being made in the book was no longer valid.

Maps are also important. They are a condensed visual of reality, each focusing on particular aspects of our reality. Maps provide the ability to see more at one time than is possible to see in the real world.

Maps have a downside, too. As I said above, they are a condensed version of reality. They cannot contain all data relevant to a particular geographic area. The map maker has to make choices and filter out most of the data.

Nevertheless, the value of books and maps far outweigh their downsides.

As Gandalf said, though, “The world is not in your books and maps…It’s out there!”

It would be dangerous for a leader to be too immersed in books and maps, in the created representations of the real world.

Leaders need to get their hands dirty. Books and maps are helpful guides, but the best way to lead and to grow in capacity for leading is to interact with the real world.

Real people. Real problems. Real opportunities. Real wins.

The concepts and models in books are a great place to start, but we must frequently and regularly emerge from the safety of books and maps and engage risky reality.

The real world is where we really learn the lessons that books and maps only introduce us to. We internalize concepts and turn them into experience. We become more effective leaders.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by All Bong. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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