Book review: On the Map by Simon Garfield

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 6:58pm

On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way It Does
by Simon Garfield
Profile Books

The largest atlas ever published was so big it required its own plane for delivery to buyers, Simon Garfield tells us in On the Map. You needed US$100,000 to buy the book and six strong lads to carry it. The atlas was amazing but user-unfriendly - a bit like this admirable but occasionally unwieldy book.

Garfield is a British journalist whose previous book, Just My Type, was a bestselling exploration of his love affair with printers' fonts. Now he has turned his attention to maps and their wide family of graphic relatives - atlases, guide books, Google maps, sat nav and beyond.

"More people use more maps than at any other time in human history, but we have not lost sight of their beauty, romance or inherent usefulness. And nor have we mislaid their stories," he writes, referring to the proliferation of electronic, internet-borne maps in our phones, cars and computers.

"How on earth did we get to this point?" he asks, then plunges his readers into a 2,000-year odyssey of more than 430 pages, beginning with Ptolemy and Columbus and ending with Facebook and Google.

On the Map is less a narrative with a coherent trajectory than a chronological parade of mini-chapters - bite-sized units only loosely linked to what came before or after.

His research team earned their money. For example in one brief span, mid-volume, Garfield's zigs and zags are as follows: 10 pages on the cholera map that tracked down and ended an epidemic in 1850s London; then immediately over to Australia for six pages on a calamitous 1860 expedition by characters named Burke and Willis, who died in the outback; then off to Robert Louis Stevenson's fictional Treasure Island treasure map; then suddenly we're getting frozen with Robert Scott in the Antarctic.

The abrupt turns may exhaust seekers of orderly narrative navigation. But Garfield clearly wants us to enjoy the long parade for its own sake, and the charm, quirky appeal and good yarns that maps and their makers can generate.

Lots of tidbits emerge. We may think of cartographers as painstakingly accurate craftsmen - yet some deliberately drew fake cul-de-sacs on their city street maps in order to protect their copyright.

Garfield takes us on short diversions into fiction: Stevenson's treasure map charmingly named dangerous rocks and shoals after "meddlesome lawyers and civil servants".

Less charmingly, Hitler used maps and information in the German guide book Baedeker to launch air attacks against Britain's most historic cities.

Sadly, Garfield wanders off the map at a couple of points. One howler transplants Canada's Hudson Strait to Patagonia. Then he uncritically recounts a widely discredited anecdote about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria at the whim of the Islamic leader Caliph Omar in the seventh century AD, which is probably an ancient piece of anti-Muslim propaganda. A reader wonders occasionally how carefully the text was vetted.

Garfield evidently had a lot of fun pulling all his research together, with amusing chapter headings and captions, and no end of generally well-told anecdotes.

He ends his journey with more than 100 pages on the vast explosion in the mapping world since the late 20th century. An admirer of Google Earth - "An atlas had never been so much fun" - the author interviews the man behind the 3-D mapping sensation, Brian McClendon. McClendon says his latest passions are charting the inside of buildings and mapping the world's trees. One billion are already done, with about 400 billion left to map, he says.

As for that US$100,000 atlas, only 31 were printed but there might still be one left for you. Just call an Australian company called Millennium House and ask for the "Earth Platinum Edition". Tell them Simon Garfield sent you.