Late last year I received, as a review copy, the sixth volume of the Atlas of Design. Things being what they are around here, there has been somewhat of a gap between receiving it, reading it, and saying something about it. But it’s worth saying something about that volume now, and the Atlas of Design in general, for at least one small reason I’ll get to in a moment.
I’ve mentioned the Atlas of Design series before, but it’s worth introducing it properly. Published every two years since 2012 by the North American Cartographic Information Society, the Atlas of Design is powered by volunteer editors and contributor submissions. Nobody’s getting paid for working on or appearing in these volumes—though it must be said that many of these maps are commercial ventures (posters available for sale at the mapper’s website) or works for hire (National Geographic and the Washington Post are represented in volume six), so the mapmakers aren’t doing this just for the exposure.
I 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.
The 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.
North 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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