Out today from WBooks: Het Grote Kaartenboek: Vijf eeuwen cartografie [The Great Book of Maps: Five Centuries of Cartography] a book collecting 500 years of maps from the National Archives of the Netherlands. Edited by Ron Guleij, it also features eight essays by guest authors. (In Dutch, naturally.) We’ve seen other map books that focus on the holdings of a specific library or archive: I’m thinking specifically of Debbie Hall’s Treasures from the Map Room (2016), which presented maps from the Bodleian Library, and Tom Harper’s Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library (2018). This one seems to be taking a look behind the curtain, with material on collection management (assuming Google Translate is not deceiving me).
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.
The Map Books of 2022 page is now live. At the moment only a few books are listed—it’s only February, after all—but this is where my worldly and erudite readers come in. If you know of a book coming out this year that ought to be on this page—basically, any and all books about cartography, maps and related subjects—please let me know. It’s best if the book has a publisher listing and publication date (though I’m well aware that dates can move around a lot); I’ll work with what I can get, though.
(Actually no, check that, this year I’m late; and last year I didn’t post one at all except for this stationery guide.)
—I post a gift guide that lists some of the noteworthy books about maps that have been published this year.
(Actually . . . this year not very many books were published. Thanks, pandemic. I’ve had to expand my scope a bit this year.)
If you have a map-obsessed person in your life and would like to give them something map-related—or you are a map-obsessed person and would like your broad hints to have something to link to—this guide may give you some ideas.
Please keep in mind that this is not a list of recommendations: what’s here is mainly what I’ve spotted online, and there’s probably a lot more out there. Also, I haven’t so much as seen most of what’s here, much less reviewed it: these are simply things that, based on what information I have available, seem fit for giving as gifts. (Anyone who tries to parlay this into “recommended by The Map Room” is going to get a very sad look from me.)
This post contains affiliate links; I receive a cut of the purchase price if you make a purchase via these links.
Atlas of the Invisible, James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti’s collection of new maps and visualizations based on “enormous” datasets, is out today in the United States from W. W. Norton. (The British edition, published by Particular Books, came out in September.)
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.
“I have a new mapping project on Kickstarter,” writes our friend Alejandro Polanco. “This time it is about recovering some exciting hand-drawn maps by a forgotten craftsman from the 19th century.” This is Alejandro’s second project to digitally recover a 19th-century illustrated book; this time his target is an 1890 edition of a treatise on topographical drawing by Juan Papell y Llenas. The book is full of detailed examples of mapping techniques done only with ink on paper. Alejandro’s restored edition, The Art of Hand-drawn Maps 1890, will be released this fall in digital (€18 pledge) and paper (€32) editions.
News about upcoming map books has been thin on the ground of late, which is hardly surprising given the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on the publishing industry as a whole. But in just the past two days we’ve seen three significant new book announcements.
Kenneth Field’s long-awaited Thematic Mapping: 101 Ways to Visualise Empirical Data, which takes as its starting point a map of a single event—the 2016 U.S. presidential election—will be out from Esri Press as an ebook on the 31st of August, Ken announced yesterday. Pre-order: Amazon (Canada, UK).
The Quarantine Atlas: Mapping Life under COVID-19 is the byproduct of CityLab’s 2020 project soliciting hand-drawn maps of life under quarantine (previously here and here). In the book version, Laura Bliss matches 65 of those submissions with original essays. Due out in April 2022 from Black Dog & Leventhal. Pre-order: Amazon (Canada).
I’ve updated the Map Books of 2021 page with these books; that page still looks awfully sparse compared with previous years. If there’s a map-related book coming out this year that I haven’t listed, please let me know.
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.
Matthew Edney reviews Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther’s When Maps Become the World (University of Chicago Press, 2020), a philosophy of science book that engages with maps and representation—with what Winther calls “map thinking.” Edney isn’t convinced by Winther’s approach: “Winther remains committed to outmoded and deeply flawed concepts of the nature of ‘the map’ that, to be honest, call into question the entire project.”