On the Map – Simon Garfield

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On the Map by Simon Garfield gives an overview of the history of maps and mapping and covers a range of related issues. It is aimed at the general reader.

Garfield begins with the size and shape of the world and shows how the Greeks managed to work this out as early as the pre-Christian era. It involves some simple trigonometry, which Garfield explains, before going on to look at what else the ancients knew about the shape and size of the world, and how they recorded and displayed that information.

He moves on to the Mappa Mundi, describing its place in the cathedral at Hereford, and explaining how it was nearly sold to mend the roof. He shows how this map, and others of the time, were oriented not by the magnetic compass, but towards Jerusalem, the centre of the earth.

There is a chapter on how the Vikings sailed to Greenland and to what is now Canada. Then Garfield goes on to look at the increasingly accurate maps developed in the Renaissance, and describes the explorations that took place at that time.

This is a complex period of map history, and Garfield appears knowledgeable and well informed. He considers different claims about the discovery and subsequent naming of America. He points out that it was the prominence of his name on one particular map that popularised the name of the explorer – America Vespucci – and gave rise to the name we use now, but that his claim to have discovered the continent was in fact quite flimsy.

Garfield moves back to mathematics when he describes the development of the Mercator projection, and looks at other, different projections of the world. It’s always a challenge for me to visualise the way three dimensional objects are resolved onto two dimensional spaces, so I enjoyed this section.

As he summarises the history of map making, Garfield includes chapters on mapping a city, and on the craze for atlases in Holland in the 17th century. He traces the growth of the Ordnance Survey. He looks at some of the errors that found their way onto maps, and persisted into the twentieth century. These included the clearly marked but totally fictitious Kong mountains in West Africa.

Later in the book Garfield is more haphazard in his choice of subject matter. The chapter on the map that stopped cholera in London was interesting. It’s a well known story but I had never come across the details. Chapters on treasure maps and journeys to the South Pole are followed by another on the A-Z and one on Hollywood maps of the stars’ homes.

There is a section on a man who gave up his day job to build globes. Garfield visits his studio in London, and watches him at work. Another looks at the modern day value of historic maps and describes some of the map thefts that have taken place. Want to steal a valuable map? There are suggestions here.

In the final chapters Garfield illustrates the development of SatNav, and looks at maps in games. This was interesting, covering simple games like Monopoly, as well as more complex maps such as those used in Dungeons and Dragons and Grand Theft Auto. Finally Garfield writes about mapping the brain. It’s an eclectic list.

As you can see this is a good book for anyone who enjoys non-fiction, and likes finding out more about things! I don’t want to be sexist, but as a boy I loved books like this because they made learning informal and interesting. I’m in a men’s book group and I guess most of the blokes in that would like it too for the same reason. Many of them are not that keen on fiction and bring along biographies or history books, regarding fiction as a bit of an indulgence.

On the Map is especially good for dipping into if you have particular interests – such as maps in games. Especially in the second half the chapters stand alone, and can be read in isolation from the rest of the book.

Garfield tries manfully to be entertaining throughout, choosing interesting and unusual characters, stories and ways in to the different aspects. He always gives us the human angle, and tries to avoid being dry and boring. But it is a long book and at times he was clearly straining a bit to find amusing things to say, and maintain that cheery tone.

I’d certainly recommend this book to the general reader who wants an informal and entertaining account of the history of maps.

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