Adventures in Academic Cartography

Pulling back the academic veil can be fascinating. I remember one day 25 years ago in my first year of university, when my history professor paused to tell us about his current research project (a biography of an early 20th-century French politician). For a half hour he held the class rapt as he detailed the long effort required to nail down one specific detail in his subject’s life. For me it was a revelation: history was detective work, and therefore exciting stuff. That may have been the moment that sent me to graduate school in history (and not just me—that professor generated more graduate students than anyone else in that department).

monmonier-adventures I was reminded of that day as I was reading Mark Monmonier’s memoir, Adventures in Academic Cartography, which does much the same thing as my prof did back then: pull back the veil to reveal an entire academic career that was hidden from our view. Monmonier is a familiar name to those of us interested in maps, having published a dozen books—scholarly, erudite but accessible to the lay reader—over the years. (I’ve reviewed three of them myself: How to Lie with Maps, his essential text on how maps persuade and deceive; Rhumb Lines and Map Wars, a look at the politicization of the Mercator projection; and From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow, on the politics and controversies behind place names.) But, like my professor, we are largely aware of only one aspect of his career: in Monmonier’s case, the books. Adventures in Academic Cartography, which he self-published in the fall of 2014, fills in the blanks.

An academic career is not normally made of exciting stuff—as titles go, Adventures in Academic Cartography is surely ironic—and to be sure Monmonier’s memoir can be very dry and technical in places, particularly the chapters involving his academic research, which is much less accessible to a general reader than most of his books. In his preface, Monmonier readily admits that the book is unlikely to hold much interest for anyone not already interested in the history of academic cartography. “I’ve worked hard to make the narrative flow well, but Adventures is hardly a page-turner.”

A fair comment, but there is such a thing as false modesty, as well as protesting too much. Monmonier’s prose is as pellucid as ever; and if Adventures is unlikely to turn unsuspecting souls into academic cartographers (particularly given its often-expressed impatience with academic politics), it nevertheless contains much of interest to those with an interest in maps. With chapters organized by theme—which aids coherence, and allows readers to skip those of less interest—Monmonier builds a portrait of an academic career with many facets, from the core of teaching, research and committee work to the ways in which a professor can engage with the broader community, as consultant, editor and, of course, author.

The chapter on the books on which his reputation has been made is almost criminally slight, with only a few brief paragraphs per title; it’s as though the books ought to speak for themselves. (A chapter on writing does afford some insights into their creation.) But that’s amply compensated for by the detail provided by the chapter on his work on the History of Cartography project; the sixth volume, which he edited, covers the 20th century and was released last year. His account of its creation makes me want to buy a copy of the damn thing for myself, and hang the $500 cost. Also fascinating is his chapter on map collecting—his own modest collection, and his encounters with the world of map collectors.

As should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read his book on the Mercator controversy (or his essay on critical cartography), Monmonier has always been sharply critical of the use of critical theory in cartography, and its use of abstruse language and theoretical call-backs when plainer speech and original thought will suffice. He’s got a chapter explaining his position here—he’s been called a historical materialist, if that helps—as well. (Though as another materialist who’s gotten a face-full of critical theory in my own academic career, I might quibble on a point or two, such as his complaint about “a map historian who once referred to the mapping of Eastern Europe as ‘the cartographicization’ (italics mine) of eastern Europe” [p. 197]—I can see how cartographicization and mapping can mean subtly different things.)

Like another academic memoir I’ve read recently (Tracks and Shadows by the herpetologist Harry W. Greene), the personal and private does not much intrude on the professional, at least once Monmonier’s career gets under way. It’s an academic memoir in every sense, an account of a long and distinguished career that offers insights into the profession and the subject matter being studied. As such it’s not for everyone, but I think a few of you would find it a fascinating read.

Adventures in Academic Cartography: A Memoir by Mark Monmonier
Bar Scale Press, November 2014
Buy at Amazon (Canada, U.K.) | Kindle (Canada, U.K.)

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.