Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review: On the Map by Simon Garfield

Don't you just love maps? I do. I used to love having possession of the atlas whenever we went on a road trip, carefully following along, tracing my finger on the wiggling lines across the page. And one of the very best books ever given to me came from my college geology professor and was an enormous world atlas that showed maps of all sorts of interesting things.  I still own it although many of its maps are sadly out of date now and I occasionally open it up and leaf through it, letting my imagination take me places on its maps that I've never visited  I love my old globe that shows Germany as two separate countries and the USSR as one monolithic country.  In his accessible and informative book about maps, their history, what they tell us about ourselves, and their future incarnations, Simon Garfield has captured the fascination we human beings have long had with maps.  On the Map is a lay cartographer's dream, engrossing and packed with wonderful tidbits of information about where we are in the world, where we've been, and where we are going.

Ranging from the very first written maps still in existence today to the state of the art mapping we are doing now not only of physical place but of other unknown areas like the brain, this book traces the exciting progress from unknown to known.  The book takes mapping and the history surrounding it and grounds it firmly in the easily understandable language of popular science.  Garfield is clearly passionate about the subject and he casts a wide net here concentrating not just on maps as they evolved and changed throughout history but also discussing the lives of those who advanced our knowledge of the world and our place in it, the explorers as well as the influential cartographers who never left their own homes.  He touches on the odd and fascinating ways that maps have been used and reputed to have been used in modern times such as tracking the movements of a probable murderer and encased in Monopoly games to show WWII prisoners the way out of their POW camps. 

The book dispels some long-standing cartological myths and offers insight into the source of common phrases: "Here be dragons" was never actually printed on a map to indicate a dearth of information and "in the limelight" started because of the use of small calcium oxide (lime) lights to map Ireland through its constant fog and mist and which subsequently found use in the theater.  There are portions on the chicanery practised by map, the forgeries and the thieves, and the errors, intentional or not, that existed unchallenged for so long.  Garfield covers pirate maps and the lure of "X marks the spot" and other map related things that have so long caught our collective fancies.  The tidbits of information are not so in depth as to be overwhelming to the lay reader and each of the chapters is fairly self contained so that this is the perfect book into which to dip.  The maps aren't the greatest quality but they will pique the interest of the reader to find out more.  On the Map is a delightful wander through the stories, history, and anecdotes surrounding maps and our insatiable desire to explore, especially for anyone who once willingly unfolded all those road maps impossible to return to their original size simply for the pleasure of perusing them.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I added this to my wish list last week - it looks like something I'm going to really enjoy!

  2. Wasn't this a fascinating read?? I loved it :)


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