Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: On the Map (Penguin, 2013)

For physical maps have been a vital part of our world since we first began finding our way to food and shelter on the African plains as hunter-gatherers. Indeed, Richard Dawkins speculates that the very first maps came about when a tracker, accustomed to following trails, laid out a map in the dust; and a recent finding by Spanish archeologists identified a map of sorts scratched on a stone by cave dwellers around fourteen thousand years ago. Dawkins goes on to speculate as to whether the creation of maps – with their concepts of scale and space – may have even kick-started the expansion and development of the human brain.
In other words, maps hold a clue to what makes us human.

I loved Garfield’s book about typography, fonts, and printing, Just My Type; as I came to the end of the book I read slower and slower, trying to stretch it out, not wanting it to end.

Now he’s done the same thing for maps. And again, he’s a master story-teller crafting non-fiction.

Let me, as I often do for non-fiction, start by explaining what this book is not. It is not a book of maps. You will not learn how to make maps, or, except at the most general level, how maps are made; it’s not a technical book. It is not an academic study of cartographical history. Instead, Garfield takes much the same approach with maps as he did with fonts: it’s a string of highly entertaining anecdotes grouped into thematic chapters, arranged more or less chronologically; a sort of collection of stories about the history of maps and mapmakers, and the effect they’ve had on the world. Each story is absolutely charming. And while it overall shows the evolution of cartography and the increasing uses for maps as the world became more complicated, each chapter is more or less standalone; feel free to skip over the ancient Greeks if they bore.

I enjoyed it thoroughly, though not with quite as much slavish devotion as Just My Type. I think there’s an inherent reason for this: color, and size. While fonts are almost always completely reproducible in black and white on a standard book-sized page, maps rarely work under those conditions. It’s a book that’s greatly improved by reading it with a computer nearby. But, even with that unavoidable limitation, it’s an excellent read.

I have a thing for maps. Not “good” ones; not the historic ones you find in this book. No, I’m more of a map slut. I have a truly gaudy gold foil version of the 1630 world map by Henricus Hondius, in a wood and linen frame, no less; it was love at first sight and I’ve dragged it all over New England for the past 25 years. Or the oddball world map, long lost, showing the world divided between “Christian, Mohammedan, Heathen,” which always struck me as saying more about the mapmaker and the world he lived in than the geographical distribution of religious preference. I even have a Map of the Universe (at least, from the Northern Hemisphere), though it’s partly hidden behind one of my bookshelves at the moment.

So I was primed for this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Some of my favorite sections:

Chapter 2: The Men Who Sold the World: In 1988, the Very Reverend Peter Haynes, Dean of Hereford Cathedral, nearly auctioned off “the most important and most celebrated medieval map in any form” to the highest bidder in order to pay for a new roof.

Pocket Map: Here Be Dragons: Contrary to all those stories we’ve heard about Medieval and early Renaissnce sailors relying on maps with warnings, “Here be Dragons” marking unknown seas, those words never appeared on any historical map. The words “hic sunt dracones” do appear on the 12-cm Hunt-Lenox Globe from 1505. They appear over what would be present-day China, not over the ocean. And it might refer to Dagronians, a cannibal tribe described by Marco Polo.

Pocket Map – J. M. Barrie Fails to Fold Pocket Map: Before he wrote Peter Pan, Barrie wrote a scathing article about the evils of maps that, once opened, cannot be refolded, the folly of buying such a pocket map regardless of the assurances and demonstrations of the bookshop clerk, and helpful hints on what to do after you have indeed purchased a map and find yourself with an uncooperative pile of paper: “Don’t speak to the map… Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you have done it…. Don’t blame your wife.”


Chapter 7 – What’s the good of Mercator? I was particularly happy to see the discussion of Mercator’s distortion in the service of navigation, and the alternate Gall-Peters Projection, included a lengthy reference to the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality segment from The West Wing, which is just as hilarious now as it was when first broadcast in 2001.

If you’re more academically inclined, you’ll find lots of solid historical information about who made what map (Manhattan, Antarctica, Australia) when and why, and it’s all told in just as interesting a fashion as the more humorous anecdotes. Those more entertainment-oriented will fnd chapters on maps in literature (from Treasure Island to Harry Potter), movies (Casablanca was the first major movie to use a map, and of course we all remember the Indiana Jones series) , and the creation of specialty maps like guidebooks and maps to movie star homes.

I never realized until I read “Pocket map – The Biggest Map of All: Beck’s London Tube” how difficult it is to map a subway system. I spent 20 years in Boston, and the Beck map looked very much like what I was familiar with. Turns out it was quite a milestone in 1933, and was the first time a subway map was genuinely useable; the secret was in sacrificing scale and precision for clarity. Since then, the style has been used (and parodied) many times: Simon Patterson’s Great Bear of actors, philosophers, saints, and other “stars” (from the constellation of the Great Bear, see?); the map attributed to “Journalist F” of the Daily Mail including “obsessions and fears of Middle England” such as ear cancer, Nigella Lawson, and speed daters; and, tying back in to Garfield’s original book, the Typographic Tube Map by Eiichi Kono. And, as Garfield used the Periodic Table of Typefaces for endpapers before, now he uses Mark Ovenden’s Urban Rail Systems map, in the London Tube Map style, as endpapers here, showing the railways of the entire world as a single transportation system.

There’s much more, of course; I could use five posts, like I did with Just My Type, talking about all the chapters: the “ghost map” that stopped a cholera epidemic; Churchill’s map room; the map created from Marco Polo’s travel diaries, which hangs, incongruously, in “a dimly lit corridor above a Venetian stairwell.” The “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” map, with Christ embracing the world, literally, in the religious allegory typical of medieval maps.

But you’d be better off to get the book and read it – leisurely. Linger over the lives and times, and enjoy the stories Garfield tells. He’s very good at it.

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