What 'Paper Towns' Title Really Means

"You can see how fake it all is," Margo Roth Spiegelman, the protagonist of John Green's novel Paper Towns, tells her love interest/classmate/childhood friend Quentin in the book. "It's not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It's a paper town." She's referring to their home town's superficiality, its consumerism, and its lack of permanence, but it still seems like an odd phrase — what is a paper town, really? The title does seem apt, considering that the novel, now adapted into a film starring Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff, is all about those things you can't pin down. Still, it's a catchy and curious phrase, and one that might leave viewers, and readers, wondering what it's really all about.

As explained by John Green, it all comes down to one word: plagiarism. The author explained in one of his Vlogbrothers videos that "mapmakers create fictitious entries in their map to make sure no one else is copying them." So a paper town, really, only exists on paper. Though one might expect the phenomenon to have died out as mapmaking technology evolved and maps were no longer drawn by a single cartographer, Google Maps and Apple Maps still contain fictional locations designed to detect plagiarism. Green's use of "paper towns" refers to a fairly specific instance of invention — that of entire nonexistent residences. Here's the author's own description of a paper town:

In Paper Towns, the "paper town" is a tiny place called Agloe. It's not even a town so much as a single shop. According to NPR, no such town existed in the 1930s when it first started appearing on maps. Its name came from an amalgamation of the initials of the mapmakers' names, Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers. When cartography was a craft by hand, mapmakers would often find their hard work ripped off by larger companies hoping to make easy money. As a sort of copyright, a cartographer would insert an unnoticeable and often unnoticed fake entry — a bridge, a road, a small town — that, if copied, would betray the plagiarist and give the original creator grounds to sue. (Paper towns are also known as "map traps," for obvious reasons.)

That is precisely the situation that confronted Alpers and Lindberg when Agloe appeared on a Rand McNally map — but their suit failed. It turned out that the Agloe General Store had cropped up precisely where Agloe was mapped, because the Esso gas station company had quite legally bought the map from its creators. The owners of the general store spotted the name on the map where they planned to open up shop, so they adopted the name for themselves. And thus fiction created reality — until the store shuttered, leaving just a bald expanse of road. Agloe has periodically appeared on Google Maps (NPR reports that it was just removed last year), but no actual town was ever developed. At the end of Paper Towns, though, (spoiler alert!), Quentin finds Margo hiding out in Agloe.

Fictional reference points are not confined to maps, though — there have been all sorts of made-up articles in encyclopedias, road maps, history books, and magazine articles. The New Yorker began calling these fictitious entries "Mountweazels" after a particularly famous example of an invented reference in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia. To prevent copying, the editors invented a photographer named Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, who tragically died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine. If Mountweazel's story appeared in any other encyclopedia, the editors reasoned, they'd know they had a plagiarist on their hands. In 2009, the Dublin museum Monster Truck Gallery hosted an exhibition of Mountweazel's fictional collected works. Or, rather, six artists convened to envision what those collected works might look like.

Green was also not the first novelist to adopt the idea of a fictitious entry for his work. One of the best-known instances of this is Jorge Luis Borges's short fiction Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which finds Borges-as-narrator in search of artifacts from Uqbar, an invented nation that exists only as an encyclopedia entry as part of a thought experiment to see if ideas can invent a world. Uqbar exists on the planet Tlön, whose literature reveals that its own inhabitants don't believe in a cohesive reality of their world. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is a metaphysical hall of mirrors that combines a fictionalized Borges narrating invented conversations with his very real contemporaries like Alfredo Bioy Casares. The story is a kind of thought experiment about the foundations of reality and the intersection of ideas and the physical realm. It's perhaps the grandest-scale instance of a paper town — a "paper planet," really.

At the end of Paper Towns, Margo rages against Quentin for imposing an idealized image of her that doesn't necessarily correlate with the girl herself. Paper towns, paper photographers, paper girls — Green's novel participates in an exchange between concept and reality that has actually been a part of the way we consume information for decades.

Image: 20th Century Fox (2)