On the Map leads to unexpected crossroads
By Simon Garfield. Gotham, 464 pp, hardcover
Among the many pleasures of historian Simon Garfield’s cartographic study On the Map are its endpapers, which depict the subway systems of the world linked together in the style of Harry Beck’s iconic map of the London Underground, circa 1931. Alas, it is not yet possible to take a train from Vancouver, the last stop in the upper left-hand corner, to Auckland, New Zealand, on the lower right. But dreams such as this have always animated the cartographic impulse, and anyone given to travel—armchair or otherwise—will be sent spinning around the globe many times while reading Garfield’s sequel to his equally enjoyable typographic tome, Just My Type.
If one were to map the new book, however, the results would not look much like Beck’s guide to the Tube, a trendsetting masterpiece of bright colours and straight lines. On the Map runs through a vast assortment of alleys, byways, and footpaths: some end in a tangle, while others lead to all sorts of unexpected crossroads. It’s far from a linear history of map-making—and it’s all the more readable for that, even if Garfield, unlike his peers Mark Kurlansky and Bill Bryson, refrains from making generalized observations about humanity during the course of his wanderings.
Perhaps that’s because his mappa mundi is so vast in scope. Not only does it unearth the origins of map-making during Hellenic times, it extends to the satellite-assisted Google-isms of the 21st century, covering along the way the origins of the “here be dragons” myth, the discovery of Antarctica, and the immense globe that guided Winston Churchill through the Second World War. Diversions into skulduggery and disinformation entertain: it wasn’t that long ago that the entirely fictitious Mountains of Kong dominated maps of central Africa, while the case of Benjamin Morrell, an American sea captain who named an imaginary island after himself and described it so convincingly that it featured on charts for almost a century, is worthy of a book, or an opera, on its own.
Some readers might wish for a more straightforward narrative, a more direct connection from the first scratchings on vellum to the GPS units of today. That’s an understandable desire, but if getting lost in On the Map is a distinct possibility, it’s also a genuine—and instructive—pleasure.