On the Map, by Simon Garfield

review published on February 5, 2014. Reviewed by jj redfearn

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

What a weird book. I thought this would have a chapter each on the most innovative, informative, famous and radical maps from the first records drawn in rock paintings or carved in stone through maps of the world, of roads, of property and planets, of charts and their rutters.

Were I to do a systematic evaluation of a book about maps I’d setup a spreadsheet and score the volume on a carefully worked-out set of criteria.

Criteria would include things like these:

Why has each map been included in the book?
Why were other similar maps excluded?
Who made it and when (including brief biography)?
What was the purpose of the map (eg demonstration of political might, military, legal boundaries, travel, exploration, minerals, decoration …)
How was the territory surveyed?
How accurate is/was it?
How was the map printed?
What was it used for, noting how that differs from the reason it was commissioned)?
What made it different, innovative, famous, infamous?
What has been its history? How did it change the world?

Then I’d look for some of the most original or archetypical maps I can think of, the Mappa Mundi, the maps on the Vatican corridor walls, the map of Napoleon’s advance into Russia and his subsequent retreat, the Vinland map, Bligh’s charts, a map of the far side of the Moon and on-line maps. Maps that form a timeline to grip the rest of the story. On the whole, in a book subtitled ‘Why the World Looks the Way it Does’, I’d not expect long discourses on how men and women use different paradigms to navigate, long, long stories about Google Headquarters and Google maps, random diagrams of the brain and the history of identifying what part of it fulfills what function. Nor lengthy stories about modern globe makers and the difficulty of making robust round objects.

Against expectations, a disappointment. A few of the most famous maps are in here, but many more are missing. Against the criteria, a mixed bag. Some of the maps are described in every particular, and more. Others score almost zero. Some chapters last a couple of pages, others are chatty extended narratives of the author’s visit to one place or another where a map resides, mildly interesting but completely unnecessary. If this had big pages and sumptuous colour photos of the maps and globes and Google HQ it would be a coffee-table book. It doesn’t, so isn’t. This is really a little book of maps and mappy things the author knows something about, jotted down and illustrated with copious small, illegible, black and white pictures.

Conclusion? I was, I think, misled by the title and the cover.


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