The Red Atlas

During the second half of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union’s military and civilian cartographers created topographical maps of the entire world of a very high standard of quality and accuracy. How they did so, and why, remains in large part a mystery, one that John Davies and Alexander J. Kent’s new book, The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World (University of Chicago Press, October) fails to solve completely.

The Red Atlas is not the definitive history of those Soviet mapping efforts because so much about those efforts remains a secret. The only reason we know about them is because, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so many physical copies of those once-highly secret maps fell into the hands of map collectors. The Red Atlas talks about that: for more than a decade, Davies and Kent have been studying those maps. (I’ve been following their work. See the links at the bottom of this post for my earlier posts on the subject.) What they know about the Soviet mapping efforts—sources, methods, their reason for doing it—is extrapolated from the final product of those effort: the maps. The Red Atlas is above all else an exercise in cartographic forensics.

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Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps

With Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps (University of Chicago Press, March 2017), Stephen J. Hornsby makes the case for the pictorial map as a distinct and significant genre of mapmaking that is worthy of study and preservation.

Because pictorial maps were artistic rather than scientific, Hornsby argues, they were ignored as a subject of cartographic study—“treated as ephemera, the flotsam and jetsam of an enormous sea of popular culture.”1 As such they have not been preserved to the same extent as more strictly cartographic maps. (Being printed on cheap acid paper didn’t help.) But as products of popular culture they were distinctive—and ubiquitous. “By World War II,” he writes, “pictorial maps had created a powerful visual image of the United States and were beginning to reimagine the look of the world for a mass consumer audience.”2 They were so prevalent, I suppose, that they were invisible. Taken for granted. It frequently falls to the historian of popular culture to point out that the common and everyday is, in fact, significant. That’s what Hornsby is doing here.

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You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City

You Are Here NYC: Mapping the Soul of the CityAn exhibition taking place now at the New York City Library, Picturing the City: Illustrated Maps of NYC, features 16 pictorial maps from the Library’s collection of illustrations. Running until 9 April 2018, it’s curated by Katharine Harmon, whose book, You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City, came out last November from Princeton Architectural Press. Here’s an interview with Harmon about the exhibition in Print magazine.

This seems as good an excuse as any to take a closer look at You Are Here: NYC. Past time, actually, since I’ve had a review copy in my hands for a year now.

You Are Here: NYC is the third of Katharine Harmon’s map books. The first, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, came out in 2003, the second, The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography, in 2010. Harmon’s distinctive style in editing and curating these books, carries over to the present volume.

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A History of Canada in Ten Maps

The odd thing about A History of Canada in Ten Maps, the new book by Adam Shoalts out today from Allen Lane, is that it’s almost entirely uncontaminated by maps. It’s not just because the electronic review copy I received (via Netgalley) contained no images of the maps being referred to in the text: I expect that will be rectified in the published version; if nothing else I was able to find an online version of each map (a gallery follows below). It’s that in the text itself the maps are quite literally an afterthought.

It turns out that A History of Canada in Ten Maps isn’t really a book about maps, or mapmaking, but exploration. For Shoalts, the maps are the evidentiary traces of the stories he really wants to tell. In nine of the ten cases, those are stories of Canada’s exploration; in the tenth, a key battle of the War of 1812. Combined, those stories form a mosaic tale of nation-building, one that supports the kind of national mythmaking that the previous government in Canada was particularly fond of.

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The Territory Is Not the Map

Critiques of fantasy maps have more to do with the shortcomings of fantasy worlds than the maps that depict them.

There’s something I’ve noticed about the recent round of debates about fantasy maps, something I’ve been noticing about discussions of fantasy maps in general. They don’t talk about fantasy maps in terms of their cartographic merit. That is to say, they don’t judge fantasy maps as maps.

When Alex Acks vents about fantasy maps, it’s because the mountain ranges in Middle-earth don’t make sense, not because the cartography of Pauline Baynes or Christopher Tolkien wasn’t up to the task. It’s more that the territory is shaped to fit the story rather than the other way around, less that the maps of said territory frequently lack a scale. When Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza says that “Game of Thrones has such a terrible map it could be presented as a parody of bad fantasy maps,” he’s not saying that the cartography of the various Song of Ice and Fire mapmakers, such as Jonathan Roberts (The Lands of Ice and Fire), James Sinclair (books one through four) or Jeffrey L. Ward (A Dance with Dragons), is deficient. He’s saying that the Game of Thrones geography is terrible.

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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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Atlas of Cursed Places

Book cover: Atlas of Cursed Places The first thing to keep in mind about Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places (Black Dog & Leventhal, October 2015) is that it’s not an atlas. Rather, it’s a collection of brief essays about a series of unique places around the world. In that I suspect it’s much like Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands or Aude de Tocqueville’s Atlas of Lost Cities (English translation forthcoming next year). All of these books shared a publisher in France; all of them appear to have been conceived under the influence of Calvino.

The Atlas of Cursed Places’s essays are about places in the world that are, for one reason or another, particularly horrible, by dint of their history or geography. There are navigational hazards and environmental disasters, and sites of old horrors that were entirely human-made. Ghost towns, war zones, slums and mausoleums. Animal infestations. Each are engrossing, but the essays barely get started on their subjects: turn the page expecting more and you find yourself already on the next one. Each essay is an act of cruelty (very meta given the subject matter), whetting readers’ appetites but denying us the feast.

In the end this is an exercise in curation: the choices are fascinating, but the essays are affective rather than substantive. In that sense this book is an even lighter read than Alastair Bonnet’s Unruly Places (which seems to have much less Calvino in its book DNA).

(While not an atlas proper, this book does have a lot of maps illustrating each essay. But their effect is disorienting: each cursed place is indicated by a star on an old and out-of-date map, usually a plate from a century-old atlas.)

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Amazon | iBooks

Unruly Places (Off the Map)

Book cover: Unruly Places Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places (first published in the U.K. as Off the Map) is a light, entertaining exploration of some of the world’s more unusual places. Bonnett, a social geography professor at Newcastle University, has written 47 short essays about locations that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t make any sense: the exceptions, the asterisks, the ink blots (in at least one case literally) on the map.

These range from the deeply frivolous to the profoundly injust: from bits and pieces of New York City transformed into environmental time capsules and art projects to places meaningful to the author; from rendition sites and pirate bases to Bedouin settlements in the Israeli Negev desert; from destroyed landscapes to Potemkin cities. The places often feel almost science-fictional; and in fact several of them evoked settings in existing science fiction works, like Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and Maureen McHugh’s Nekropolis.

All in all, a pleasant diversion for the geographically minded, though I did have one quibble: the book calling latitude and longitude “Google Earth coordinates,” as though degrees are as proprietary as limited to the KML format.

Amazon | iBooks: Canada, U.K., U.S.

Review: The Map Thief

E. Forbes Smiley III was a well-known and well-connected map dealer, an expert who helped build the Slaughter and Leventhal map collections. Then in 2005 he was caughton videotape—stealing maps from Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Libraries he had frequented scrambled to check their own holdings and found additional maps missing. Smiley, who cooperated with the authorities, would eventually be sentenced to 3½ years for stealing nearly 100 maps from the British, Boston Public, New York Public, Harvard and Yale libraries, among others. The libraries believed he stole many more.

Book cover: The Map Thief With The Map Thief, Michael Blanding presents a book-length exploration of the Forbes Smiley affair, which stunned map collectors and map libraries alike in 2005. Its publication, coming nine years after Smiley’s arrest and four years after his release from prison, is something of an anticlimax, especially for those of us who followed the case so closely as it unfolded (I blogged about it more than 60 times, myself).

Map thieves fascinate us, even if they themselves are not that fascinating (see, for example, the essential blandness of Gilbert Bland, the subject of a previous book about map thefts, Miles Harvey’s Island of Lost Maps), because of what they steal. As stolen goods, antique maps are a curiosity: like art, but more stealable, because there are few copies, not just one.

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Review: A History of the World in Twelve Maps

If somebody who was vaguely interested in maps wanted a book to get them started, I think I might point them toward A History of the World in Twelve Maps, written by Renaissance Studies professor Jerry Brotton. This book first appeared in September 2012 in Great Britain, where it’s now out in paperback. The U.S. edition came out last month in hardcover.

It’s a history of cartography that takes a rather unique approach: instead of providing a straight narrative history, Brotton focuses on twelve maps (or, more precisely, mapmaking endeavours), ranging from Ptolemy’s Geography to Google Earth. But Brotton does a lot more than talk about just twelve maps.

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Review: Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps

Book cover: Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (The British Library) does what it says on the tin: you really will find out more than you ever wanted to about the sea monsters that appeared on medieval and renaissance maps. (Van Duzer defines them as anything that a contemporary reader would consider exotic, whether it was real or imaginary, so walruses appear along with krakens.) It’s a dizzying catalogue of them, all kinds of them, from medieval mappaemundi (actually, there’s a Roman map in there too) all the way to Ortelius and the late sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century sea monsters were giving way to sailing vessels, and to a loss of ornamentation and illustration in general.

But: sea monsters. What was up with them? For the most part this book gets lost in the weeds, focusing in detail on monster after monster, but Van Duzer does sketch out an argument in the introduction:

First, they may serve as graphic records of literature about sea monsters, indications of possible dangers to sailors — and datapoints in the geography of the marvellous. Second, they may function as decorative elements which enliven the image of the world, suggesting in a general way that the sea can be dangerous, but more emphatically indicating and drawing attention to the vitality of the oceans and the variety of creatures in the world, and to the cartographer’s artistic talents. Of course these two roles are compatible, and sea monsters can play both at the same time. (p. 11)

Van Duzer goes beyond the map in his discussion of sea monsters. For one thing, he points out the non-cartographic sources of sea monsters, such as works of natural history, and compares them to the monsters on the map. He also looks at the economics of sea monsters, which were embellishments that cost extra and may have required a specialist artist: “if the client commissioning the chart did not pay for sea monsters, he or she did not receive them” (p. 10).

For my part, it seems to me that sea monsters in renaissance maps are also holdovers of medieval iconography, sort of a cartographic appendix. Being a big-picture sort, I glazed over a bit at all the detail, but this sort of detail is exactly the sort of thing that illuminates the subject. Between this book and The Art of the Map (reviewed here), I’ve learned quite a bit about the margins and empty spaces of old maps lately.

Previously: Here Be Sea Monsters.

Review: Here Be Dragons

Book cover: Here Be Dragons Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons is a book-length examination of the use of maps and settings in fantasy literature. Maps and settings. Which is to say that maps are not the sole focus of this work: mark that. There are four main chapters, only one of which deals with maps; the remaining three deal with the issue of borders and territories, the relationship between nature and culture in fantasy cities, and the relationship between ruler and realm. Taken as a whole, this book discusses the role of place in fantasy.

But I won’t be discussing that whole here: I am no literary scholar, and can’t say much of value about the chapters that do not discuss maps — nothing that would rise above the level of a last-minute undergraduate paper, anyway. But maps are something I can say something about, especially fantasy maps, since I myself have been paying attention to them over the past decade, first during my time blogging at The Map Room (see the Imaginary Places category) and since then more sporadically, but with more focus, for my fantasy maps project.

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