Olga Godim's Reviews > On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks

On the Map by Simon Garfield
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Feb 08, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction

This is a fascinating book. Garfield obviously loves maps, and his map-infatuation is contagious. He rhapsodizes on the history of maps and their beauty, the people who created maps and the people who used them. Explorers and monks, scientists and artists, sailors and doctors – they all found their places on the pages of this book.
From ancient Greece to Google, maps have been a part of human life, and the author traces the evolution of the world maps through the centuries and around the globe. In addition to the mass of meticulously researched but slightly dry facts, he includes plenty of engaging stories in his chapters. The book is ripe with those stories. One of the more fascinating tales involves the reason why America is not called Columbus. Some stories are about the creation of famous maps, while others are anecdotes, tales of human gullibility, or accounts of extreme courage. Some are tragic while the others are whimsical or hilarious. Let’s take a look.
After the amazingly precise maps of the ancients, the most famous being Ptolemy’s map, Europe experienced a decline in cartography. For the next more than 1,000 years, the world maps produced in Europe were mostly mappa mundi. Some of them survived to this day. Usually, such medieval maps centered on Jerusalem. They had nothing to do with geography and everything to do with the religious view of the world – in pictures and words. Morality tales in visual form, they were frequently filled with interesting-looking beasts of the creators’ imagination. One of those beasts was Bonacon – a ram-like creature, shooting its ordure at its enemies as a defense mechanism. A charming species, to be sure. Of course, those maps were not intended for travel but were rather philosophical statements of the time.
Then, when the great journeys of Columbus and the rest of that bunch took place, Ptolemy’s map became popular once again, and serious cartography rose in prominence. There is a myth that Columbus himself had a copy of Ptolemy’s map with him, when he sailed for India and discovered America instead. Talk about the reliability of old maps! Or mapmakers.
The first Atlas and the history of travel guides, the city maps and the original British Ordnance Surveys (where even toilets could be found) – the enormous upload of information in this book is overwhelming. Names, dates, and places abound, but the numerous amusing interludes, sprinkled though the book, make it supremely entertaining as well as educational.
Did you know that on the world maps, California was an island for two centuries, starting from 1622? Last time it appeared as an island in 1865 on a map produced in Japan.
Another interesting tidbit: the legendary Mountains of Kong – the invented, impassable mountain range that crossed Africa west-east on the maps from 1798 on for almost a century.
Or how about this morsel: for one Middle Ages pilgrim, it took 230 changes of donkeys to get from Bordeaux to Constantinople. Of course, the man recorded his travels for posterity.
From geographical maps, the author proceeds to imaginary maps and treasure maps. There was an industry of treasure maps blooming in the middle of the 20th century. For $10, one could buy an Atlas of Treasure Maps, filled with sunken ships and buried pirate treasures, authenticity guaranteed.
While some of the maps were frivolous or outright silly, others were almost heroic. Did you know that during the WWII, the Monopoly makers secreted high-resolution maps of several European countries underneath the game boards in a few special sets? Red Cross then sent those game sets to Nazi’s concentration camps in Europe, attention of the military POWs. Some of those maps helped the captives escape.
And then there were medical maps, drafted by doctors. One of them – a map of the cholera outbreak in London in the middle of the 19th century – eventually led to the construction of London sewers
Garfield also mentions game maps (think D&D or Skyrim) and fantasy book maps, brain mapping and the reviving business of globe making. He discusses the power and potential for disaster associated with the new digital maps – Google, GPS and the like. What will happen, if all the GPS units stop working, he wonders? Or start working incorrectly? Mind boggles at the thought. Will we all drive into the ocean?
The book is engrossing and informative, written in a clear, precise language, and peppered with humorous asides. It includes lots of enthralling illustrations. Highly recommended for anyone – a map enthusiast or not.

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