Review: North American Maps for Curious Minds

Book cover: North American Maps for Curious MindsNorth American Maps for Curious Minds, written by Matthew Bucklan and Victor Cizek and featuring maps and illustrations by Jack Dunnington, is the second book in the Maps for Curious Minds series: Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds came out in 2019, and Wild Maps for Curious Minds is scheduled to come out this fall. The formula appears to be the same across all three books: 100 maps and infographics, divided by theme into chapters. In the case of North American Maps for Curious Minds, the 100 maps are sorted into seven chapters: Geography; Politics and Power; Nature; Culture and Sports; People and Populations; Lifestyle and Health; and Industry and Transport.

The series is a spinoff of the Brilliant Maps website, and can be seen as an attempt to render viral map memes in book form: if this book is any indication, the maps themselves are the sort that tend to get shared across social media platforms. One I recognized right away was no. 8: the first country you’ll reach going east or west from every point on the coast. Their appearance between hard covers is to be honest a bit unexpected, and to be honest, the translation from screen to page doesn’t always work.

Partly that’s because of the limitations of the media: a book’s page is a fixed size. Maps on paper can’t be interactive, but they also can’t be too crowded or too empty, and to be honest the latter problem is more at play here, with choropleth and pictorial maps that are, to be blunt, too simple, particularly the country-level choropleth maps: when such a map has Canada and the U.S. on it, there’s a lot of undifferentiated colour (for example, no. 23 on head of state salaries, no. 27 on military expenditure per capita, nos. 80 and 81 on average height, no. 96 on the unbanked). Such maps would be fine in Instagram-sized proportions, but they don’t scale up. In fact, these country-level choropleths are fine examples of maps that don’t need to be maps: they’d be easier to understand, and take up less space, as graphs or tables.

Which is not to say that they’re all like that. The best of them go deeper than country or state/province and offer some real detail. These include the climate maps (nos. 31 and 32) and the supervolcano (no. 38), glacial maximum (no. 39), dark sky (no. 40) and solstice (nos. 43-46) maps—basically, most of the nature chapter. Add to that the county-level maps: second homes (no. 70), language (no. 73), commuting (nos. 94 and 95) and internet access (no. 100).

The county-level maps, like slightly more than half of the total maps—53 out of 100—focus solely on the United States (another two look specifically at Alaska or Hawaii); more than a few of the others include Canada and Mexico but are very much centred on the continental U.S. via the usual Albers projection. Basically, the U.S. is in every map, the rest of North America in some of them. To be sure, some of the subjects being mapped are quintessentially American, like the number of Waffle Houses by latitude (no. 76). In other cases the limitation no doubt stems from where the data being mapped comes from, though a more continental focus would be possible in a few cases: I can see no reason to exclude Canada, for example, from the maps of indigenous homelands (nos. 74 and 75). It’s possible to use more than one dataset in a map.

In the end, these are basically low- to medium-effort maps that present reasonably interesting, but unchallenging, factoids in a pleasant enough format at the intersection of choropleth and pictorial maps. In that, plus its lack of an overarching point other than “isn’t this interesting,” North American Maps for Curious Minds is a bit insubstantial. Like a map meme that goes viral, a quick sugar hit of popular cartography, but not much more than that.

I received a review copy of this book from one of the authors.

Book cover: North American Maps for Curious MindsNorth American Maps for Curious Minds
by Matthew Bucklan and Victor Cizek
The Experiment, 30 Nov 2021
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