Review: On the Map

Book cover: On the Map (U.S. edition) Simon Garfield’s On the Map is the third book of its kind that I’ve encountered, akin to Mike Parker’s Map Addict (review) or Ken Jennings’s Maphead (review): Maps 101—an introductory book for people who are interested in maps but don’t necessarily know a lot about them, written by an enthusiastic generalist. But Garfield’s book is more peripatetic and less focused than the others.

On the Map covers a huge amount of ground in its 400-plus pages, from the Library of Alexandria to Apple Maps (but only the announcement; the subsequent fracas came too late). There is no narrative thread tying the chapters together, and some chapters, arranged by theme, span centuries; they’re interspersed with sidebars called “pocket maps” that deal with a smaller subject in a bit more depth. It’s an excellent survey of what’s been happening with maps over the past decade; you’d be better served by reading this book than by plowing through eight years and 4,055 posts of my former map blog, though you’d arrive at the same point in the end.

Because of that blog, I am the worst audience for this book: nothing really surprised me. Those who have been paying close attention to this subject will not find much new material: this is a survey. In fact, there were several instances where I knew that Garfield was telling the story too briefly, and leaving stuff out. In his rush to cover everything, he glosses over a lot of detail. Prodigious in scope but limited in depth, this book is a view from a height. There are chapters, even paragraphs, whose topics have been addressed with entire books. On the Map is only the start of your trip into maps; it will only whet your appetite for more.

Previously: On the Map: A New Book from Simon Garfield.

Buy at Amazon | author’s page | publisher: UK, USA

On the Map: A New Book from Simon Garfield

Book cover: On the MapVia a post by Mark Ovenden on Facebook, I learn about a new book by Simon Garfield, On the Map, which from the description sounds like a book in the vein of Mike Parker’s Map Addict and Ken Jennings’s Maphead.

From the British publisher’s description: “From the early sketches of philosophers and explorers through to Google Maps and beyond, Simon Garfield examines how maps both relate and realign our history. His compelling narratives range from the quest to create the perfect globe to the challenges of mapping Africa and Antarctica, from spellbinding treasure maps to the naming of America, from Ordnance Survey to the mapping of Monopoly and Skyrim, and from rare map dealers to cartographic frauds. En route, there are ‘pocket map’ tales on dragons and undergrounds, a nineteenth century murder map, the research conducted on the different ways that men and women approach a map, and an explanation of the curious long-term cartographic role played by animals.”

It’s out next month in Britain; the U.S. edition will be out at the end of December.

Buy at Amazon | author’s page | publisher (UK) | publisher (USA)

Soundings: A Biography of Marie Tharp

Book cover: Soundings A review in Maclean’s brought to my attention a book that came out two months ago: Hali Felt’s Soundings, a biography of Marie Tharp (1920-2006), who with her partner, Bruce Heezen, created the first global map of the ocean floor, discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge’s rift valley, and helped provide the evidence for plate tectonics. She’s a major figure in cartography and among women in science, so I thought I should bring this book to your attention, too. Another one to add to the to-read pile.

Previously (on The Map Room): Marie Tharp; Marie Tharp and Plate Tectonics.

Buy at Amazon | author’s page | publisher’s page

Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas

A book has been brought to my attention that sounds relevant to my interests: Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-cheung, an English translation of which is now out from Columbia University Press.

Book cover: Atlas by Dung Kai-cheungFrom the publisher’s blurb: “Much like the quasi-fictional adventures in map-reading and remapping explored by Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, Dung Kai-cheung’s novel challenges the representation of place and history and the limits of technical and scientific media in reconstructing a history. It best exemplifies the author’s versatility and experimentation, along with China’s rapidly evolving literary culture, by blending fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in a story about succeeding and failing to recapture the things we lose. Playing with a variety of styles and subjects, Dung Kai-cheung inventively engages with the fate of Hong Kong since its British ‘handover’ in 1997, which officially marked the end of colonial rule and the beginning of an uncharted future.”

I will get back to you on this one once I’ve bought it and read it. In the meantime, here is an interview with the author. Here is a review in The Japan Times. Via Jeff VanderMeer.

Buy at Amazon | publisher’s page


Word first came in early 2009 that Jeopardy whiz Ken Jennings was writing a book “exploring the world of map nuts and geography obsessives.” That book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, came out in September, and now I’ve had a chance to read it.

Book cover: Maphead Maphead isn’t really (or just) a book about maps; rather, it’s a book about the people who obsess about matters geographical, including maps. The subject is pretty broadly defined. He begins straightforwardly enough. After a chapter on spatial awareness, Jennings looks at the scandal that erupted when a University of Miami professor discovered his students couldn’t locate anything on a map, and at map literacy in general. There’s a chapter on borders and placenames. But things really get cooking when Jennings turns to things people do. A chapter on map collecting. On maps of imaginary places. The National Geographic Bee. Roadgeeking. Geocaching. Even the Degree Confluence Project.

In its cheerful enthusiasm for all things map, Maphead reads a lot like Mike Parker‘s Map Addict (which I reviewed in 2009). This is a good thing. Like Map Addict, Maphead covers a lot of what for me is very familiar ground: I sometimes felt like I was reading my own blog archives, which is something I felt while reading Map Addict. But then Jennings goes and finds something I didn’t know, like the fact that Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” was not the only work to play with the idea of a 1:1 scale map: Lewis Carroll and Umberto Eco did it too. Ken Jennings has managed to pull off a minor miracle: a profoundly erudite, well-researched book, written in a breezy, accessible and downright witty manner that is invariably entertaining. A pleasant book that you should look at, if you have any interest in maps.

Hubris and the Times Comprehensive Atlas

When the publishers of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World announced that the newly released 13th edition showed that Greenland’s ice sheet had shrunk by 15 percent, climate scientists went ballistic. While Greenland’s ice is retreating, it’s not nearly by that much, and this is just the sort of error that encourages climate-change denialists.

How did Collins Geo allow this to happen? This is the question Mark Monmonier explores in a piece on the New Scientist website. Monmonier, the author of How to Lie with Maps and many other books, argues that hubris was behind the mistake: that the towering reputation of the Times Atlases led to overconfidence.

An explanation lies partly in Collins Geo’s apparent decision to produce the map in house. If that was the case, the firm might have avoided its embarrassment with the obvious quality-assurance step of sending page proofs to carefully chosen experts. Appropriate scientists seldom decline invitations to serve as reviewers. […]

It seems likely there was a belief that external review was unnecessary. Moreover, it seems that none of the publisher’s marketing mavens compared their provocative God’s-eye view with competing treatments on readily accessible scientific websites or Google Earth.

Hubris is not too strong a word to explain HarperCollins’s predicament. A press release promising “concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever” invites critical scrutiny by mainstream climate scientists as well as the self-proclaimed sceptics who are ever eager to pounce on overreaching pronouncements by the former. In Atlasgate, the pro-warming community, which outnumbers naysayers by perhaps 50 to 1, wasted no time in trashing the HarperCollins map.

Previously: Map Books for Fall 2011.