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Great Maps

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The world's finest maps explored and explained. From Ptolemy's world map to the Hereford's Mappa Mundi, through Mercator's map of the world to the latest maps of the Moon and Google Earth, Great Maps provides a fascinating overview of cartography through the ages.

Revealing the stories behind 55 historical maps by analyzing graphic close-ups, Great Maps also profiles key cartographers and explorers to look why each map was commissioned, who it was for and how they influenced navigation, propaganda, power, art, and politics.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published September 1, 2014

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Jerry Brotton

17 books67 followers

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5 stars
172 (43%)
4 stars
160 (40%)
3 stars
58 (14%)
2 stars
6 (1%)
1 star
2 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 36 reviews
Profile Image for Layla Johnston.
54 reviews8 followers
November 24, 2014
Unfortunately the author continues to use phrases such as "so and so discovered Australia." The use of outdated and clearly incorrect biased statements distracted me from the analysis of the maps. Most disappointing is Brotton's statement on p. 153: "Nantucket comes from the Algonquian for faraway island. Although some local names survived, the natives did not." It is unclear from his wording if he is referring to only Nantucket, but this incorrectly perpetuates the myth that no Indians are left in New England, or that Indians are historical relics and not living peoples all over the U.S. Come on, Smithsonian & DK books: you know better.
Profile Image for Carl Krantz.
52 reviews
August 24, 2022
It was a fun and interesting read, and the author does a good job at quickly introducing you to important map aspects and terms in pocket-sized bits. Unfortunately, he does a less good job in keeping up with post-colonial ideas. As this is a book from 2019, I expected more than the "Columbus discovered America" and "indians made life difficult for the settlers"-mindset.
1,581 reviews1 follower
March 22, 2015
I very much enjoyed reading this book. The maps were amazing. So many different types, I was glad to se Zheng He's map included.
Profile Image for Garret Macko.
176 reviews42 followers
February 19, 2021
This is really great, as the title indicates. Listen, I'm no map expert. I feel nowhere near qualified to tell you whether Jerry Brotton amply covered the most important maps of history. I knew some maps before coming into this book—perhaps most notably the one on the back of the Declaration of Independence—but again, not a map expert. And for that reason, this book was very fascinating. From my perspective, the author did a very good job of presenting a culturally diverse assortment of maps. Each one is accompanied by a comprehensive background and analysis, and Brotton takes extra effort to show how they fold into the broader forward progression of maps through an ongoing contextual commentary. One of the things that amazed me was watching the maps advance over time. I expected the truly accurate maps to begin to crop up in the 1900s, especially around the respective advents of aviation and space travel, but was very surprised to see them begin to take form as far back as the 1600s—it was remarkable to see some that were even older, some thousands of years old, that depicted certain geographical elements quite accurately.
Profile Image for Dan.
226 reviews132 followers
September 24, 2017
Wonderful large-format book with beautiful color maps and explanations of each. I really enjoyed the detail sections that highlighted individual areas of each map. There are a huge number of maps profiled, many of which I've never heard of before, and they were so much fun to dive into. The pages were large enough and high enough quality to expose significant detail on many of the maps, so you could explore them yourself, without the need for the guided tour of text.

Expositions of maps like this always amaze me: I can't imagine a time when there were parts of the world that were just wholly unknown. Since I've lived almost my entire life at a time when the entire world could be mapped out easily online, it's a very unfamiliar feeling – and also enticing. Exploring isn't even necessary to me... just imagine being the first person to draw a map of a certain part of the world!

My only complaint would be that the diversity of maps here is not as good as it could be – most of the Eastern maps displayed are more decorative and less detailed than the European ones – but there must have been useful maps that other cultures created as well. Honestly, I probably would've wanted more maps even if the book had included a thousand specimens.

It would have been nice if the book had included more text about the maps, but that wasn't the type of book this was; that should be saved for A History of the World in 12 Maps! The funny thing is that book has been on my "currently reading" shelf since June 9th, 2014....

While originally skeptical because of its Dorling Kindersley label, mostly associated with Childrens' books, I was pleasantly surprised and would be happy to read more along those lines. Recommended to map fans.
Profile Image for Tim Poston.
Author 9 books62 followers
November 22, 2015
I love maps -- all maps, from the distribution of diseases to Tolkien's Middle Earth. But most of all, old maps, that give a window into how other peoples have seen the world. Often, though (for instance, in map calendars) they come with too little information to do more than admire the art. Brotton sets them in context, picks out revealing details, and shares a rich grasp of their historical and navigational meaning. (Even if he does think fortuitous means 'fortunate', not 'by chance'. Don't mind me, I'm an immigrant from the 20th Century.)

A detail: the Sawley Map (the earliest known English mappa mundi, around 1200CE has the pyramids marked as "Joseph's Barns", for storing grain against famine in seven years' time, fitting them into the Biblical story despite obviously needing far more time to build. Apparently this has lingered on, to survive as a Seventh Day Adventist story for Sunday School, and emerge as an adult opinion of Ben Carson's. So he's not original even in his errors!
Profile Image for Jarrett.
95 reviews
July 2, 2015
Pornography for geographers. Couldn't put it down.
1,199 reviews5 followers
October 18, 2022
I wanted to like this book. I really like old maps, and I like that this one gives detailed views of different parts of the maps it features. But the writing that accompanies the maps is at best mediocre, and frequently riddled with flaws and inaccuracies-- at least for maps about which I knew enough to recognize the errors; goodness knows how many problems there are with things where my knowledge is lacking.

The particular problem that drove me to give up on this book is from the visual tour of a map of geologic strata of England and Wales that says the chalk downs of the Thames valley date from the Paleozoic period, when they are in fact from the late Cretaceous, i.e. Mesozoic. A minor thing, maybe, but I had encountered a major error in the immediately preceding map's analysis as well: an image supposedly highlighting the presence of Korea and Japan on the map failed to include the colored blobs that were labeled as Korea or Japan, and the text further described locations in yellow on the Korean peninsula, which were in fact in a region north of China. Similar errors (that I could notice) plagued the book throughout, going back to the third map in the book at least. The introductory information of "Ptolemy's World Map" seems to indicate it is from about 150 CE. But the text reveals that it is unclear if Ptolemy every actually created such a map, or merely devised the theory for how to draw one, and that the earliest known map using his method is from the late 1200s, though it is unclear if that is the origin of the map we are shown or not. The text also problematically claims that his projection "remained the template for geographers and mapmakers throughout the next millennia" completely ignoring maps from cultures that did not have access to Ptolemy's writings, including numerous ones featured in this very book.

I'm sure there are other problems as well, but I think my point stands. This is a nice collection of maps from a variety of times and cultures (though heavily biased towards European colonial periods) that is marred by lackluster writing and numerous errors and misrepresentations.
Profile Image for Tanya.
2,581 reviews20 followers
October 12, 2018
When I was a little girl during summer vacation my mom would take a trip to Utah-Idaho Supply and buy all sorts of maps and colored pencils, then each day we would fill in a different map. I remember writing in the names of European countries I hoped to visit someday, drawing mountain ranges and labeling rivers, drawing different pictographs to represent products made in each area... I have always had a fascination with maps.

This large illustrated hard-covered book is a sort of history of cartography, beginning with the earliest "maps" drawn on cave walls and carved on steles, progressing all the way up to Google Earth. I liked the chronological organization, which showed the development of different ideas and map-making techniques. I also liked how each map was presented as a whole, then different sections of it were highlighted and more detailed information was given. I was also intrigued that Brotton chose to include not only two-dimensional maps of actual places, but also a few theoretical religious "maps," depictions of Utopia, and even a "stick" map of Polynesian ocean currents.

Some of the earlier maps were less interesting to me, but those from the 19th century forwards were fascinating. Some of my favorites were the 1860 map showing the percentage of slaves in each Southern state, John Snow's London Cholera map, the original 1933 London "tube" map, and the 1970 map of the ocean floor. It's amazing the amount of information that can be conveyed through these pictorial representations of the earth.

The only thing that persuades me to give Great Maps 4 stars instead of 5 is that at times the text was not as superb as the maps themselves. Still, I enjoyed reading it.
Profile Image for Emily Yang.
1 review15 followers
June 1, 2020
A few inaccuracies taint this otherwise illuminating book:
* Page 175 states that a map of colonial Virginia was “produced” by Theodor de Bry. Yet it was William Hole who engraved the map based on information from John Smith. De Bry merely drew an accompanying illustration, but even the illustration was based on John White's paintings. Although De Bry later included the map in Grands Voyages, it’s deceptive to claim that he “produced” it, especially with no mention of John Smith or John White.
* Page 225 implies that Giovanni Battista Riccioli was not only the first to map the moon, but also the first to name its features in Latin. Yet Johannes Hevelius published a Latin map of the moon in 1647, years before Riccioli published his own in 1651. Although Riccioli’s lunar nomenclature ultimately replaced Hevelius’, we still use some of Hevelius’ designations.
* Every time the book discusses portolan charts, it uses the term “rhumb lines.” Yet true rhumb lines can only be drawn using modern map projections and do not correspond to the lines on portolan charts. “Windrose network” would have been more accurate.

I raised an eyebrow not only at the inaccuracies, but also at the omissions. Why would a book of “great maps” only mention Theatrum Orbis Terrarum in passing? Why would it exclude the Carta Marina and Leo Belgicus entirely?

Still, I loved having a museum at my fingertips. No other map collection contains so many annotated close-ups, and the book revealed new secrets of old maps. So despite its shortcomings, Great Maps ultimately captures the beauty and intrigue of cartography.
Profile Image for Lloyd Downey.
339 reviews
March 25, 2019
This is not an atlas but a collection of maps from the earliest to Google Earth. What I especially liked about it was the way the authors have designed it so that one can kind-of zoom in on a few features. They have small sections of the overall map enlarged with explanations of what you are actually seeing. It's interesting how we (I) have grown used to interpreting maps.....North to the top......main features having the same physical relationship on the map as they do in an aerial photo and some preservation of size relativities. But clearly, not all maps have been like this. Some maps...such as the Babylonian combine mythology into the map...but most of the maps chosen here represent the world or parts of the world for the purposes of navigation or understanding. I liked it very much.
Profile Image for Chris Cloake.
Author 9 books135 followers
November 27, 2020
I've always loved maps and anyone interested in them will love this colourful history.

From 1500 BCE to today, it covers our attempts to represent the world with lots of space for imagination. It has been an inspiration for me for the trilogy I'm working on (small plug there!).

You'll find a wealth of information that also becomes an historical commentary.

Interesting that Google Maps are included. Though a great bit of technology Google will never come close to offering the thrill of a book like this. To hold, and smell, and touch, each page turn is a joy. Love live real maps and long live real books!
Profile Image for Shain Verow.
94 reviews1 follower
December 21, 2022
You can tell a lot about a people by how they depict the world around them, and this book is a lovely introduction to the analysis of important and interesting maps. From the curious pre-Colombian landmasses that might be the Americas, to the Chinese map of the world, the evolution of the effort to accurately measure France, to the London Underground, each map tells you much more than just where things are.

Perhaps my favorite bit of analysis is the very origin of “all roads lead to Rome”, which was a road map of your Roman Empire, showing a great deal of how the Romans viewed their own empire, and it is very notable for how differently it depicts the Empire compared to nautical charts.

102 reviews1 follower
December 5, 2020
GREAT MAPS is a beautifully illustrated work from DK Smithsonian that focuses on a wide range of maps. Like all DK books, the quality of the visuals is spectacular. The book focuses on the stories behind 60 maps from around the world. Many of the maps will be recognizable to map enthusiasts. In many cases, a large map is provided, followed by close-up images showing detail. These close-ups are essential because it's difficult to see detail in some of the closeups.
As a map lover, I dived into the stories behind each map. However, even casual map fans will enjoy this outstanding work.
Profile Image for James.
13 reviews
March 13, 2018
Great maps (as the name implies), interesting notes, beautiful image quality. I wonder about some of the content choices, as there seems to be a real missed opportunity to better weave the narrative of history into the timeline of the maps, rather than simply lay them all out in chronological order.
721 reviews8 followers
October 27, 2014
As the title promises, this is a great collection of maps through the ages. A visual stunner, it offers introductions to everything from ancient carvings scratched into exposed stone to the first rendering of the world's ocean floors.

The maps are typically presented in two-page spreads, with another spread following to highlight details in close up. There are ancient mariner charts, metaphorical maps of world faiths and detailed graphical renderings of disease and poverty. The drawings are beautiful to look at and offer an engaging visual timeline as to how knowledge advanced with the maps in these pages.

My biggest complaint is probably unfair, but I wish every map here got more of an explanation. Each could probably stand a full chapter to place it in its proper visual and historic context. I realize that's beyond that scope of what the creators of "Great Maps" were trying to achieve, but I kept wanting more as I read it. (It's not always clear what's being called out in the highlights as well, a relatively minor complaint.)

This is a great collection, though, worthy of a close reading or a nice "pick it up and flip" approach.

My Favorite Maps
Carte Pisane
Catalan Atlas by Abraham Cresques
Fra Mauro's World Map
"Indian Territory" Map by Henry Schenck Tanner
London Poverty Map by Charles Booth
World Ocean Floor by Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen
Profile Image for Cindy Dyson Eitelman.
1,092 reviews4 followers
November 22, 2015
There's so much learning crammed into this book, my feeble little brain couldn't take it all in. It's an oversized picture book, each two or four-page spread showing and explaining a map that's either significant, beautiful, or puzzling. In some cases a map is really a collection of maps, like the Vatican Gallery of Maps. What a thing to see!

I was amused by his method of illustrating the size of the maps. Beside each was a figure of a human or else a human hand, showing its size relative to something we're all familiar with. A surprising number of them were much larger than a human being.

He did marvelous work of condensing big things into (relatively) small pages. I was disappointed only by the amount of space they gave up to show pictures that came out as big blurs. The small, blown-up pictures of areas of the maps--those were great. But a few of the "bigger picture" items were just wasted space.

Like many books of illustration, someday this book should be remade as an online resource. Then the viewer could expand and contract to the limits of his thumb and forefinger.
Profile Image for Thomas Brand.
Author 2 books17 followers
July 20, 2020
I couldn’t tell you why, but I love old maps. I think it has to be something about the art of them, and how something with such political meaning and intention at the time they were created has bow become artistic and historical curiosity.

I’ll always be drawn to collections like this. Seeing the ways cartographers tried to shape the world around them, whether it was claiming what they already knew or that which was being discovered and defined.

This is a pretty good collection, as they go. Most of the maps included reflect some aspect of cartography through the centuries, and the author makes sure to use examples outside of the western traditions, showing maps from other cultures and styles, some of which most people in western culture wouldn’t recognise as a map at all.
Profile Image for Adan.
Author 26 books20 followers
November 30, 2015
So many great maps in this book! Most of them are "proper" representations of the world as we know it today, but there are a few, more esoteric maps, like a Jain cosmological map, an Aztec map of Tenochtitlan, a Korean Cho'onhado (or Map of All Under Heaven as detailed in the Chinese text Classic of Mountains and Seas), a missionary map detailing the end times (complete with Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Whore of Babylon), and a cartogram showing population sizes mapped onto a traditional political map (thereby distorting what we expect to see). It's truly an amazing book showing some awesome maps.

And yes, Ptolemy is a complete dick.
Profile Image for Douglas Summers-Stay.
Author 2 books37 followers
February 14, 2015
This is a collection of important and elegant maps all throughout history. Although the pages are quite large, it was the first time I have ever gotten a magnifying glass out to study the details of a book more closely. The most interesting parts, of course, are the things the mapmakers got wrong.
The book is mostly a presentation of the maps themselves. There are just a few paragraphs putting each map into context, and then a second two-page spread that pulls out a few details from the map to highlight and explain.
There are a couple of invented maps of Utopias, but the rest are all legitimate maps, with an emphasis on maps of the whole world.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,057 reviews13 followers
September 23, 2014
Gorgeously illustrated, informative and insightful, Brotton uses a selection of maps through most of the known world and history, although African maps are conspicuously unrepresented. I was surprisingly engaged, considering it's a topic I've never really considered, and will now look into more map-oriented books, like Winchester's The Map that Changed the World.
12 reviews
June 28, 2016
Very informative. Good layout. Beautiful maps through the ages. I particularly enjoyed the map of Nova Utopia.

When I was travelling, I always wondered what ancient artifacts or maps meant. While reading this book, it brought me back to my memories from Jordan (Madaba map), Vatican City (the Gallery of Maps), and Mexico City (National Museum of Anthropology).
Displaying 1 - 30 of 36 reviews

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