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

  • Simon Garfield
  • Gotham Books
  • 464 pp.
  • February 1, 2013

A history of the increasing accuracy of maps, and a consideration on the zeal maps can rouse, from pleasure to mania to greed.

Reviewed by: Paul J. McCarren

In On the Map, Simon Garfield has assembled a great clutter of facts and stories about maps, map making, map collecting, map uses and abuses, as well as the benefits, beauties and technical obstacles of making maps and globes. The book is like the home of a collector that Garfield describes: “Every inch of [his] six-story townhouse on the edge of Central Park is covered in maps — above his bed, above the fireplace, over and across his desk and over the doors. I think the walls are papered rather than painted, but it is not always possible to tell.” A reader of On the Map may begin to feel as befuddled.

On the Map is a mix of two narratives. It’s a history of how science and technology kept increasing the accuracy of maps (from the third-century BCE calculations of Eratosthenes to today’s Google Maps). It’s also a reflection on the passions that maps stir up (from pleasure to mania, from greed to lust for land.) Garfield often provokes the satisfying reaction: “I didn’t know that!” He tells us, for example, that, in the second century CE, Claudius Ptolemy set down instructions for mapping the globe — yes, he realized the world was round — that were still in use when Columbus sailed.

Most of the book’s first half is a captivating tale of how people through the ages have tried to answer the question: “Where in the world am I?” Garfield notes, for instance, that Eratosthenes’ attempt to answer that question led him to correctly estimate the circumference of the earth. And yet, he notes, over 1,500 years after that scientific insight, the European descendants of Eratosthenes didn’t see the world as a vast place inviting discovery. Instead, they had learned to picture it as a classroom with a fixed set of lessons.

For example, around 1290, some Englishmen in Hereford created a world map that would have astonished ancient Greek and Arab geographers. On that map, says Garfield, “Gone is the careful science of coordinates and gridlines, longitude and latitude. And in their place is, essentially, a morality painting, a map of the world that reveals the fears and obsessions of the age. Jerusalem stands at its center, Paradise and Purgatory at its extremes, and legendary creatures and monsters populate faraway climes. … [It] serves as an itinerary, a gazetteer, a parable, a bestiary and an educational aid. Indeed, all history is here, happening at the same time.”

Garfield then directs our attention to other medieval maps and explains how Marco Polo’s Book of Travels influenced map makers. He guides us through the advances in cartography after 1475, when the work of Claudius Ptolemy was rediscovered and, with the aid of the newly invented printing press, widely circulated and studied. As Garfield says, “It was as if the entire world had been modernized overnight by a combination of old mathematical geography and new technology.”

The author next describes in detail a wide variety of atlases, including the 1660 version produced as a gift for King Charles II of England, which was the largest atlas in the world, measuring 1.78m high by 1.05m wide. Over three centuries later, the Millennium House published its Earth Platinum Edition, which needs six people to lift it and, in 2012, “officially became the biggest, most expensive, most user unfriendly atlas of the world in the world.” Garfield then takes us on a lengthy tour of the challenges cartographers faced as they tried to satisfy people’s growing hunger for knowing exactly where they were, even when they were traveling far from home.

But before Garfield gets to his tour of globe-making — and long before he begins to discuss mapping the brain and navigating by satellite — two things began to weary me. First, Garfield’s narrative, like the small, grainy illustrations that accompany it, isn’t always clear. For instance, he says Eratosthenes made calculations using a large pole “known as a gnomon (a forerunner to the classical vertical sundial).” I think I understand, but an illustration — a clear illustration — would have helped. A picture or a simple explanation of other terms such as portolan, rhumb, theodolite, graticule and gore would have prevented many side trips to the dictionary, as well as the distraction of wondering, “Should I know this?”

The other thing that wore me down was the mash-up of information. For instance, Garfield adds to many chapters a coda he calls a “Pocket Map.” Each one seems designed to produce a “Wow!” Here’s a sample: “The phrase ‘Here be Dragons’ has never actually appeared on a historic map”; Francis Drake sailed around the world but kept it secret; as late as 1865, maps pictured California as an island; a fraudulent 1830s report of a large island near Antarctica was recorded on maps as late as 1922. This random fact-gathering might be called the here’s-another-thing! method. It became too much of a muchness.

Maybe it’s best to approach On the Map like a visit to a museum: pop in for a short stay; soak up what catches your eye; leave before tiring; wait a while; repeat. Garfield seems to be giving this advice himself when, at the end of the book, he says: “There is, of course, still quite a lot to be said for getting lost.” In other words, when we ask, “Where are we,” we don’t have to know everything about our present location. We can simply look around.

Paul McCarren is a Jesuit priest writing Simple Guides to the Bible. He does pastoral ministry at St. Ignatius Church, Chapel Point, and at Loyola Retreat House, Faulkner ─ both of which are in southern Maryland.

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