All Over the Map

Book cover: All Over the MapWhat works online does not necessarily translate very well into a book, but All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey (National Geographic, October), a very fine book from our friends Betsy Mason and Greg Miller, is strong evidence to the contrary.

For the last two and a half years, Betsy and Greg have written a blog of the same name for National Geographic; from 2013 to 2015 they did the same thing with Map Lab, a map blog for Wired. Their background with regard to maps is similar to mine: “We are not experts in cartography or its history; we’re journalists with a lifelong love of maps who were eager to learn more,” they write in the book’s introduction.

It’s an approach that’s worked well enough for me as well: there’s something to be said for beginner’s mind, and for approaching your subject unconstrained by what you already know. One thing I’ve noticed in more than 15 years of map blogging is how siloed mappers are: antique map collectors, GIS pros, academic cartographers, web mappers, map illustrators—they all work in their own corners, and there isn’t as much cross-fertilization between them as you might think. It may take non-specialists like us to see the big picture, because we don’t know enough about any one corner. “Maps” is too big a subject to master.

In that vein, “eager to learn more” can yield real results. Those results can be awfully eclectic, and All Over the Map is proof of that. There’s no real attempt to limit the scope of their subject: the book’s title, though borrowed from the blog, is not out of place. The book is loosely organized by theme, and those themes are themselves fairly broadly defined: “Waterways,” “Cities,” “Conflicts and Crisis,” among others; within that thin structure, we are introduced to maps of every time, place and subject: maps from early modern Europe and pre-colonial Mexico, maps of the Moon and the ocean floor, of ski hills, of rugged terrain, of enemy territory, of the flows of water and people. Online maps are reproduced with just as much care as an ancient manuscript.

Turning a blog into a book works better than you might think. The essays in All Over the Map (the book) have been substantially reworked and rewritten from their first appearance in All Over the Map (the blog). They work well in book form, for a couple of reasons. One, Betsy and Greg are more thorough than I am: whereas my old-school type of blogging emphasizes quick links with minimal explanation, they dig further into the subject, interviewing experts and even the subject (if still living).1 In other words, they’re journalists practicing journalism. And two, the form of the book—this largeish (30 × 25 cm), full-colour book—allows for the maps to take proper centre stage. It flips the relationship of the web page: the text is tiny, the images large. The maps can be appreciated better this way. Astonishingly, the blog is better as a book.

The maps they include are familiar, at least to me: they and I were working the same source material at the same time, and I don’t disagree with any of their choices. Not having a theme means that there is no reason not to include an interesting map, or to include an uninteresting map because it’s somehow important.

This is as catholic, as inclusive, a collection as I have ever encountered. As an introduction to where things stand in the mapping world, to the best of what I’ve seen lately, I’d have a hard time coming up with something better.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey
by Betsy Mason and Greg Miller
National Geographic, October 2018
Amazon | Bookshop


  1. Full disclosure: this has, in one instance, included me, though I think that was back in their Wired days.