Book review: On The Map, Simon Garfield

By Giles Broadbent on November 15, 2012 12:35 PM |


On The Map
Simon Garfield (Profile)

Simon Garfield surveys the historic landscape of map-making and concludes that they say as much about our story as they do about topography.

Like just about everything else in what was formerly modern life, the internet has both destroyed and re-shaped the landscape of maps.

Now, as Simon Garfield writes in this comprehensive, often overwhelming, survey of the craft of the cartographers, we do not pore over a map and look for the arrow saying "You Are Here".

Instead the map comes to us - via our phones, our SatNav and our flapping print-outs from Google. The GPS in our pockets puts us at the centre of the universe.

We are creating a new map, with fluid borders, made up of the connections we make via Facebook, Twitter and the like.

No longer, he laments, the childlike wonder of the Ordnance Survey in plastic sheathing on a wet day in Kendal, or an X Marks The Spot treasure map, or the unexpected wrong turn into a sleepy village (unless, of course, the SatNav is having an off day).

The author wanders far and wide in his quest for stories (presumably he knows where he's going) and takes in such mouth-watering themes as thieves, forgers, scandals and controversies, from the sale of the Mappa Mundi to the paradigm-shifting Vinland map whose importance and authenticity has been disputed for decades.

In early years, he points out, cartographers hated the white space of terra incognita and went to work on cartouches and a flights of fancy about the lifestyle of the inhabitants.
Occasionally a fake mountain range would appear and would stay for decades because cartographers copied each other.

But as the brave or foolhardy pushed back the boundaries - culminating in the golden age of Antarctic exploration - the globe was completed.

Meanwhile, form and function became the next big thing with the Tube map at its pinnacle.

Simon Garfield has an eye for the curious and quirky facts - such as the crushing news that Here Be Dragons is a fiction and how the A-Z lost all its Ts out the window - and this a joyfully plotted journey from Ptolemy to Googleplex.

One complaint: the reproduction of the maps is dour and disappointing.