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.