Review: Treasures from the Map Room

treasures-map-room-obliqueIf all maps must necessarily be selective, choosing what to show and what to leave out, surely map books must do the same. That thought came to mind as I perused Treasures from the Map Room—no relation—a book that presents maps from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, collected and curated by the Bodleian Map Room’s senior library assistant, Debbie Hall.

“Although maps have formed part of the Bodleian’s collections from early on, they have been collected actively only since around 1800,” Hall writes in the introduction. Broadly speaking, the Bodleian’s map holdings come from a combination of bequests and legal deposit requirements. The latter in particular means that the Bodleian’s holdings of British maps—including virtually every Ordnance Survey map and a large number of commercially published maps—are very extensive. The bequests are sometimes much better known: maps named for their owners and donors rather than their creators—the Gough Map, the Selden Map—falling into the Bodleian’s hands.

Hall organizes her selection—some 75 maps—into seven chapters organized by theme: Travel and Exploration, Knowledge and Science, Pride and Ownership, Maps of War, The City in Maps, Maps for Fun, and Imaginary Lands. Sometimes those themes make for unlikely juxtapositions: Hall mentions the Tabula Peutingeriana and American highway maps in very nearly the same breath; and Maps for Fun, a chapter dealing with tourism, recreation and travel, includes a 15th-century Holy Land pilgrimage map—Reuwich’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam—alongside the MountMaps 3D Navigator Map. But apart from that the chapters present us with some very interesting maps indeed: Travel and Exploration gives us the Gough and Selden maps; Knowledge and Science discusses Mercator, Ortelius and early astronomical maps, John Speed, Christopher Saxton and the Ordnance Survey; Maps of War gives us fortifications and plans, siege and trench maps, but also silk escape maps of World War II; Imaginary Lands ranges from Hole’s Poly-Olbion maps to Leo Belgicus, Tolkien and Lewis, and the art of Layla Curtis.

We get, in other words, a taste of just about everything—but only a taste. The breadth of Treasures of the Map Room is both a blessing and a curse. We’re made aware of the volume and diversity of the Bodleian’s map holdings, but we never get a chance to drill down beyond the most cursory of examinations, never more than one example of something. On the other hand, Hall’s approach brings to the fore maps that might not otherwise be included in books like this—books that can privilege the rare and the ancient over the more mundane but more significant. For example, the map I found myself staring at the most was the 1864 Ordnance Plan of the Crystal Palace and its Environs, a 1:2,500 map of incredible detail and delicacy. You might find yourself lingering over some other map. Discoveries like this are, I suspect, the whole point of book that is, after all, about a library’s hidden treasures.

I received a review copy from the North American distributor for this book, the University of Chicago Press.

Treasures of the Map Room edited by Debbie Hall (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2016). Hardcover, 224 pp., £35/$60. ISBN 978-1-85124-2504. Buy at Amazon.

Previously: Treasures from the Map Room.

Atlas Obscura

atlas-obscura-obliqueAtlas Obscura, the website, has been aggregating an online database of unusual and interesting places around the world for the past several years. Atlas Obscura, the company, has been expanding at a rapid pace these past few years, hiring former Slate editor David Plotz as their CEO in 2014. One result of said expansion has now come to fruition in the form of Atlas Obscura, the book, out this week from Workman Publishing. Written by co-founders Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras and associate editor Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura is basically a curated subset of the online Atlas Obscura experience.

Like the Atlas of Cursed Places (reviewed here), Atlas Obscura is not an atlas per se. There are maps, but they exist to locate the subjects of the essays that make up this book. Those subjects—those weird and wonderful places—also appear on the website, but the essays are different; in the sample I compared, the book’s version is considerably briefer and more dense. This is to be expected: when you have fewer than 500 pages to work with, you have to make some zero-sum editorial decisions. Fewer, more fulsome pieces, or more pieces of shorter length. Atlas Obscura has opted for the latter, with pieces that are frustratingly, tantalizingly brief, each followed by a little information on how to get there (or, in some cases, whether you can get there). Even then only a fraction of the places that appear online appear between the book’s covers.

But browsing a website is not the same experience as reading a book. No one would try to go through the entire Atlas Obscura database; the book allows for a big-picture look at the sort of thing found there. A curated subset, as I said above. A taster’s menu. The book also rewards serendipity and pleasant surprises: whether you’re reading from beginning to end (as I did for this review), looking for specific continents, regions or countries, or flipping through pages at random, you’re bound to encounter an entry you hadn’t expected to come across. If there’s value in a hard-copy (or electronic: Kindle, iBooks) version of something freely available online in expanded form, it’s here. And let me be clear: that’s not nothing.

I received an electronic advance review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

Buy Atlas Obscura via Amazon or iBooks.

Related: Map Books of 2016.

China at the Center

Two important seventeenth-century world maps are the focus of a new exhibition opening this Friday at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps, which runs from 4 March to 8 May 2016, features Matteo Ricci’s 1602 map and Ferdinand Verbiest’s 1674 map.

Ricci (1552–1610) and Verbiest (1623–1688) were both Jesuit priests, in China to spread Christianity; their maps, produced in collaboration with Chinese calligraphers, artists and printers, produced a fundamental rethinking of China’s place in the world. Not that China wasn’t at the centre of these maps, as the essays in the accompanying catalogue point out, but these maps filled out the rest of the world, which was previously a marginal afterthought in Chinese cartography.

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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.

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