On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks

Image of On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks
Release Date: 
December 20, 2012
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“. . . an erudite romp through cartographical history . . .”

In 1889, J. M. Barrie wrote a half-serious diatribe for an Edinburgh newspaper about, in his opinion, a troubling if mundane item: the folding pocket map.

Pocket maps weren’t a new item, but Barrie apparently suffered from the common affliction, still prevalent in our own day, of being unable to refold one properly. Barrie complained that once a pocket map entered a household, not even the whole family working together could fold it back up once it was opened.

“What makes you buy it?” Barrie wondered. “In your heart you know you are only taking home a pocket of unhappiness.” But as the British journalist Simon Garfield points out in On the Map, his erudite romp through cartographical history, Barrie would go on to write one of the simplest and most beautiful of map directions: “Second to the right, then straight on till morning.”

Mr. Garfield, like fellow observers of the deceivingly trivial such as Malcolm Gladwell and Susan Orlean, has a knack for endowing the quotidian with cultural, sociological, philosophical and historical weight.

In his previous bestseller Just My Type, he led us through the arcane world of type design, from the social significance of the ongoing wars over Comic Sans to the ubiquity of Helvetica, which he managed to elevate to almost Orwellian proportions.

In his new book, Mr. Garfield uses cartography as a springboard to similar explorations of how we have viewed not only the world around us, but ourselves. “Maps hold a clue to what makes us human,” Mr Garfield writes. “They reflect our best and worst attributes - discovery and curiosity, conflict and destruction—and they chart our transitions of power.”

For ancient Greeks, maps were an integral component of their urge to analyze and measure the world around them and to fit it into their humanist philosophies. In later centuries, maps were a way to correlate religious faith with geographical fact, the most famous example being the 13th century Mappa Mundi at Hereford Cathedral, which Mr. Garfield views as a “morality painting,” with Jerusalem at the center of the world and Heaven and Purgatory at its opposite ends. It served as a spiritual guide for a mostly illiterate population, a mashup of world geography as known at the time and the religious terrain of medieval Christianity.

Later still, maps were the cause of border wars, the justification for the depredations of colonialism and even, in the case of a devastating cholera epidemic in Victorian London, the mechanism for discovering the cause of a disease.

Mr. Garfield has a gift for mixing such freighted subject matter with lighter material, thanks to his impish sense of humor and his airy, flowing prose. He reveals, for example, a real Treasure Island discovered years before Robert Louis Stevenson’s imaginary one; the pop cultural side of maps as he embarks on a tacky Hollywood tour of movie star homes; and an impassable West African mountain range alluringly named “The Mountains Of Kong” that survived on maps of Africa into the early 20th century, even after a French army officer went looking for them and found they weren’t there.

There are digressions into mapping the human brain, the significance of GPS navigation for the survival of old fashioned paper maps, and the struggles of a young British maker of bespoke globes. (“Making anything round is just a nightmare,” he observes.)

Mr. Garfield comes full circle near the end of the book, with the observation that like the geocentric universe depicted on ancient maps, we are now all at the center of our own digital maps thanks to the location services of our cellphones and tablets.

But the purpose of maps, whether digital or paper or pasted on a globe, remains the same.

“When we gaze at a map,” Mr. Garfield writes, “we still find nothing so much as history and ourselves.”