Review: The Cartographers

Book cover: The CartographersI bet you’ve been wondering what I thought about Peng Shepherd’s novel The Cartographers (William Morrow/Orion, March 2022). After all, it’s a literary fantasy about maps: is it even possible for a book to be more relevant to my interests? Well, wonder no longer, because I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

This piece is a little bit different from the usual review, in that it examines The Cartographers in the context of mysteries and fantasy that deploy similar map tropes, as well as the idées fixes our culture has about maps. As I write in the review, there’s an awful lot for me to unpack:

I have been writing about maps for nearly two decades, and in that time I have encountered many works of fiction that incorporate maps and map tropes into their storytelling, whether as paratexts or as plot elements, and I have never encountered a story, at any length, as thoroughly encompassed by maps as The Cartographers. It’s not just that almost every character in the book works with maps in some fashion, whether as a cartographer, artist, librarian, map dealer, or technician. Nor are maps just a plot point—they are the point. The Cartographers is a Stations of the Map: its pilgrimage follows a path that touches on so many aspects of maps and mapmaking, from academic cartography to fire insurance maps. It spends time on the purpose and meaning of maps: it aspires to an almost Socratic dialogue. It deploys familiar fantasy genre tropes about maps. But it’s structured as a mystery novel, and opens with a murder.

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Review: Clock and Compass

Mark Monmonier’s latest book, Clock and Compass: How John Byron Plato Gave Farmers a Real Address—out today from the University of Iowa Press—is a spinoff of sorts. This relatively slim volume does a deep dive on one of the inventions featured in his previous book, Patents and Cartographic Inventions: the clock system invented and promoted by John Byron Plato (1867-1966).

Book cover: Clock and CompassThe clock system was an attempt to solve a specific problem: well into the 20th century, farmhouses in the United States lacked proper addresses. Without a street number or even a street name, navigating to a given farmhouse could be a real challenge. Plato’s solution, invented while he was trying his hand at farming in Colorado, was to assign each farmhouse an identifier based on its clock position, with the clock centred on the nearest town. The clock system saw its greatest uptake in upstate New York, where Plato relocated shortly thereafter and started his business selling the maps and directories based on his system. In a marketing turn worthy of Phyllis Pearsall, Plato cultivated his previous status as a farmer, citing as his inspiration a sale lost because his buyer couldn’t find his house.

It’s tempting to think of the clock system as the what3words of a century ago: a proprietary navigational aid promising to make wayfinding simpler. And apart from the considerable curiousity value of an obsolete but unusual (and therefore interesting) system, the story of Plato and his system is pure American hustle: the rise and fall of a business from patent to product to collapse in the face of the Great Depression, to an unsuccessful attempt at restarting in Ohio. The indefatigable Plato even persisted with his system while working for the federal government in various capacities during the 1930s. Meanwhile, after Plato’s patent had expired, a modified compass system—using compass points rather than hours on a clock face—persisted in upstate New York until 1940.

Apart from his system, and the maps and ephemera it produced, Plato left few traces in the historical record, which makes him a challenging subject for a biographer. Monmonier gamely reconstructs what he can from patent filings, tax rolls, employment records and news coverage. Lacking more verbose evidence, Monmonier even resorts to producing maps of Plato’s life from those records, which seems appropriate given the subject matter and even helps illuminate several points. The end result is necessarily fragmentary and inductive, but a portrait of Plato nevertheless manages to emerge: a restless man who after dabbling in many things, changing gears and relocating many times, hit upon an idea that was kind of neat and tried to ride it for all it was worth.

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


Book cover: Clock and CompassClock and Compass: How John Byron Plato Gave Farmers a Real Address
by Mark Monmonier
University of Iowa Press, 12 Apr 2022
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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.

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Elsewhere (The Age of Islands)

Elsewhere (book cover)It’s ostensibly another quirky book about islands—there are, to be sure, a lot of them out on that subject—but Alastair Bonnett’s latest book has an urgency and pertinence to it that is belied by the relatively anodyne title it bears in its U.S. edition. Elsewhere: A Journey into Our Age of Islands makes it sounds like any other light travelogue with an innocuous point of view. Far better is the title it had for its original British edition: The Age of Islands: In Search of New and Disappearing Islands. Which is what it’s about: islands that have been created, and islands that are going away—by artificial and natural means.

Though when it comes to building islands, the artificial gets the bulk of Bonnett’s attention—but then people have been building islands at a rather brisk clip lately; volcanoes can’t keep up. Bonnett visits the various kinds, from the Netherlands’ polders to Dubai’s crass luxury archipelagos—and its imitators in Panama and Hainan—to China’s various military islands built up to buttress its claims to the South China Sea, to the expansion of Hong Kong’s airport. There’s a lot of money involved in these projects, not least because people pay a premium for proximity to the sea, but Bonnett repeatedly makes the point that climate change means these islands will be short-lived. “It’s odd, then, that building small flat islands in warmer latitudes is such big business. One day the dots will join.”1

In the book’s smaller second part, Bonnett turns to a consideration of islands that are disappearing. And while volcanoes, earthquakes and even nuclear tests can be the cause of islands being removed from the map, the main point here is anthropogenetic climate change. Bonnett travels from Panama’s San Blas Islands to Tonga to the Scilly Isles southwest of England to survey the imminent and the inevitable. The contrast is stark and deliberate. The map is being remade in both ways: islands are being built while others are on the brink of disappearing, but the benefits and damages are not evenly distributed. Bonnett does not pull his punches, but he is less angry than he ought to be. “We keep building islands even as natural islands are disappearing. The new ones are not very high and they are vulnerable to storms and sea-surges. Are we crazy?”2 The question more or less answers itself.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the University of Chicago Press.


Elsewhere (book cover)Elsewhere: A Journey into Our Age of Islands
by Alastair Bonnett
University of Chicago Press, 17 Nov 2020
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The Age of Islands: In Search of New and Disappearing Islands
by Alastair Bonnett
Atlantic Books, 7 May 2020 (U.K. edition)
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The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps

The Eternal City (cover)Something I often do when reviewing a book is talk about it in terms of the expectations of its potential readers—particularly if readers might come to a book with expectations that the book does not meet, because the book is doing something different. If you’re expecting The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps, written by the art historian Jessica Maier and published last November by the University of Chicago Press, to be basically A History of Rome in 100 Maps, it isn’t: the count is more like three dozen. This doesn’t mean that The Eternal City is a slight book—it most certainly is not, though at 199 pages it’s a bit shorter than, say, A History of America in 100 Maps (272 pages).

But counting maps would miss the difference in Maier’s approach. To invoke xkcd, this is depth-first rather than breadth-first: there are fewer maps here, but they’re discussed in much more depth than the two-page spreads of the hundred-map books, and provided with much more context. This is a history of Rome in maps in which history, Rome and maps all get their proper share of attention.

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Underground Cities

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Mark Ovenden has made a career of publishing books about transportation systems and their maps that are both comprehensive and copiously illustrated. These include books about transit maps, railway maps and airline maps, as well as books about specific transit systems like the London Underground and the Paris Metro.

His latest, Underground Cities (Frances Lincoln, 22 Sep), is in some ways a natural progression from his past work: in the introduction he muses on the link between transit geekery and wondering about “what else lies down there beyond the walls” (p. 6). But in other ways this is quite a different book.

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Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography

The March 2020 issue (PDF) of Calafia, the journal of the California Map Society, has as its theme the mapping of space. It also has something from me in it: my review of the third edition of Nick Kanas’s Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography. An excerpt:

It’s important to remember a book’s target audience—its imagined ideal reader. In the case of Star Maps this is Kanas’s younger self, who came to map collecting via his lifelong interest in amateur astronomy. “I was frustrated that there was not a single book on celestial cartography that could inform me about the various aspects of my collecting,” he writes in the preface to the first edition. “What I needed was a book that not only was a primer for the collector but also had sufficient reference detail to allow me to identify and understand my maps. Nothing like this appeared, so I decided to write such a book some day” (p. xxi). In other words, for a compendium this is a surprisingly personal book, one that reflects his own journey into the subject and, presumably, his interests as a collector.

I’ll post the full review on The Map Room once I’ve checked my draft against the published copy. In the meantime, check out the issue of Calafia (PDF) in which it appears. (Update, 24 Jun 2020: Here it is.)


Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography
3rd edition
by Nick Kanas
Springer Praxis, Sept 2019
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In Search of Lost Islands

We expect maps to tell the truth; indeed we need them to on a fierce and primal level. “I believe cartography enjoys an enviable position of credibility and confidence among the people who see it. If you see it mapped, you believe,” wrote Charles Blow last fall; he was writing in response to Trump’s petty defacement of a hurricane forecast map with a marker. The reaction to Trump’s stunt, was, I thought, revealing. It’s part and parcel with what Matthew Edney refers to as the ideal of cartography: striving toward a universal, unbiased and perfect map.

When a map has a mistake on it, when it’s wrong, it does something funny to our heads. We obey our phones and dashboard GPS navigators even when they send us off a cliff. We concoct nutty theories about ancient civilizations because a 16th-century portolan chart had a funny bend on a coastline. We wonder, because someone wrote “here be dragons” on a map, whether dragons were actually real. We make brain pretzels trying to force maps to be truthful even when they are manifestly wrong.1

Maps have to tell the truth. They simply have to. Maybe that’s why stories about mistakes on the map, and the havoc those mistakes cause, fascinate us so much. Which brings me to three books, all published for the first time in 2016, that talk about map errors of an older kind: islands and other features that appeared on maps, sometimes for centuries, that in the end turned out not to exist.

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Cartography: The Ideal and Its History

Cartography (cover)
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Matthew H. Edney’s Cartography: The Ideal and Its History (University of Chicago Press, April) is a full-throated jeremiad against the concept of cartography itself—the ideal of cartography, which after 237 densely argued pages Edney says “is quite simply indefensible.” Or as the subtitle to the first chapter states: “There is no such thing as cartography, and this is a book about it.”

On the surface this is a startling argument to make, particularly for Edney, who holds two roles that are very much about cartography and its history: he’s the Osher Professor in the History of Cartography at the University of Southern Maine (where, among other things, he’s affiliated with the Osher Map Library) and the current director of the History of Cartography Project. With this book, Edney is essentially undermining the foundations of his own profession.

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The Art of Illustrated Maps

Map illustrations. Illustrated maps. Pictorial maps. Map art. There are many different names for a form of mapmaking that is, to appropriate a phrase, “not intended for navigation,” but rather for purposes such as advertising and promotion, political propoganda, decoration, or simply pure art. You may not be able to find your way home with such maps, but that’s not to say they don’t have a purpose.

I’ve reviewed books about maps in this general field before. Stephen J. Hornsby’s Picturing America (reviewed here) explores the rich pictorial map tradition in the United States during the early and mid-20th century. The Art of Map Illustration (reviewed here), on the other hand, is a focused, step-by-step guide to the how of modern-day map illustration.

The Art of Illustrated Maps: A Complete Guide to Creative Mapmaking’s History, Process and Inspiration (HOW Books, October 2015) falls somewhere in between. Written by John Roman, it’s a book that talks about the creative process in considerable detail, and gives many contemporary examples of map illustrations, but tries to place that process in the context of the history of map illustrations.

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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.

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The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, 15th Edition

How exactly do you review an atlas?

The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World (HarperCollins) is the flagship of the Times World Atlas line. (The others, in descending order of size and price, are the Concise, the Universal, the Reference, the Desktop and the Mini.)1 It’s the latest in a long line of Times atlases, tracing its heritage to the original 1895 atlas published by the Times and the 1922 Times Survey Atlas of the World produced by the venerable Scottish mapmaking firm, John Bartholomew and Son. Like its predecessors, it’s absolutely gargantuan: with the slipcase, it’s 47 × 32.5 cm (16.5 × 12.8 inches) in size and weighs 5.7 kg (12.6 lb). Only the National Geographic Atlas of the World is a little bit larger, and even it weighs less than the Comprehensive (4.5 kg or 9.9 lb).2

The 15th edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas came out on 6 September 2018 (and on 15 November 2018 in North America). HarperCollins has sent me a review copy, and I’ve been trying to come up with something to say about it.

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The Writer’s Map

The Writer's MapMy review of The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands went live today on Tor.com.

Edited by the historian of exploration Huw Lewis-Jones, The Writer’s Map is a collection of essays and maps that explore the relationship between maps and stories; the essays are written both by the creators of those stories—Cressida Cowell, Lev Grossman, Frances Hardinge, David Mitchell and Philip Pullman make appearances—and by the mapmakers who were inspired by those stories, such as Roland Chambers, Daniel Reeve and others. It also draws an important connection between travel and adventure stories of the past and modern fantasy, and explains why “here be dragons” is as much an attractant as it is a warning. Read my review.

The Writer’s Map is published by Thames and Hudson in the U.K. and by the University of Chicago Press in North America, from which I received a review copy.

Previously: More from (and on) The Writer’s Map; David Mitchell on Starting with a Map; Essays on Literary Maps: Treasure Island, Moominland and the Marauder’s Map.

A History of America in 100 Maps

In my review Tuesday of Tom Harper’s Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library, I spent some time talking about the choices made when assembling a collection of maps. Susan Schulten’s third (solo-authored) book, A History of America in 100 Maps, out now from the University of Chicago Press in the Americas and the British Library in the U.K., also draws upon the British Library’s map collection, particularly in the early chapters. (This may come as a surprise, seeing as it’s a book about America.) In a few instances the same map makes an appearance in both books. But in terms of what the two books do with the maps, their approaches are quite different.

Schulten, a history professor at the University of Denver, is the author of The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950 (University of Chicago Press, 2001) and Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2012). These are social histories of maps and mapmaking, which is very much my kind of thing, and I’ve been meaning to check out Schulten’s (and Martin Brückner’s) work for some time. From what I gather, Schulten’s work focuses on how maps were made and used—the function of maps.

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Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library

Every year, at about this time of year, gorgeous hardcover collections of maps start appearing in bookstores. The timing is not coincidental: map aficionados need gifts bought for them, after all. But there’s something about these books, usually assembled from a single library’s massive collection, that’s worth thinking about. The British Library, for example, has more than four million maps in its vaults—how does an author preparing a book based on that collection decide which of those maps to include? (Some maps will be no-brainers: they cannot not be included.) And less obviously, but more critically, how do you organize the book, if it has no specific theme or focus? If you’re going to put out a book that says, essentially, “look at all these maps we’ve got locked up here,” you have to decide on some kind of order.

There are several ways to do it: Treasures from the Map Room, Debbie Hall’s 2016 collection of maps from the Bodleian Library (reviewed here), organizes itself by subject, for example. Whereas the book under consideration here, Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library (The British Library, 11 October), curated by the Library’s Tom Harper, organizes its many interesting and beautiful maps by continent. This is exactly the structure of a world atlas, and explains Harper’s choice of title. The chapters on each continent are bookended by chapters on the universe, world maps, seas and oceans, and fantasy worlds; and the continents are deliberately and pointedly arranged in alphabetical order, with Africa leading and Europe last.1

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