Book Review: ‘On The Map’ by Simon Garfield

Who here loves maps and can pore over a map of an unknown territory, real or fictional, for hours imagining the geography and the adventures to be had? Yeah you are one of those people, a lot of us are. In fact I’d hazard to say that a majority of geeks and nerds are. It’s part of who we are and a natural expression of our imagination and deep passion for things.

In the last couple of years there has been a few books about maps starting to be published. It seems that we are all rediscovering our childhoods love of the atlas and also discovering that we weren’t the weird outsider we thought we were. The last book on maps I read was a beauty, ‘Maphead’ by the wonderfully hilarious Ken Jennings (see my review on goodreads.com). Ken takes a look at several applications of mapping in the last few decades and engages with these activities, interviews people involved and just has a lot of fun.

‘On the Map’ provides a different and more traditional look at maps by presenting a chronological history of cartography via selected maps, or mapping techniques. Simon takes us on a journey from the very first attempts at mapping the known world, the Mappa Mundi, right through to GPS systems and mapping in video games.

It’s hard not to compare Simon’s work with Jennings’ even though they take a different perspective upon the subject and do compliment each other. There were some points where I felt a little let down by Simon, but I’ll get to those points after, because despite these, it was a damn good read. Simon has chosen by far some very interesting tales to tell about the history of cartography, and it seems he has done a great deal of research. Each chapter is clear and concise and very entertaining. It is clear that Simon is a great fan of maps and is enthusiastic to share.

But onto those niggling negatives, and there are only two. Firstly, there is a chapter on mapping in video games that is quite well-researched and he admits that the maps and geography in these games are intricate and the effort that goes into these works is astounding. Yet he writes derisively about these games being time wasters and infers that people who play these games are on the fringe of society. Surely he has heard of leisure activities and that normal people play these games not just unemployed stoners. Anyway, being a bit of a gamer, especially a fan of sandbox games, where mapping and geography get expressed in the most beautiful ways, I felt disappointed  that Simon did not express a greater understanding and appreciation of these points.

Secondly, there were instances when Simon interviewed  a person about a subject that he was writing about and mentions going to meet this person etc. But sometimes there was no more information about this meeting or person for more than a paragraph. I am supposing that most of what he talked to the person about made it into the text as pure information, but it seemed like that in a few instances I would have liked to have heard more from that person and about that person. I know I have written a lot about these negatives, but they are very small.

I purchased this book without looking at a single review and it was a great surprise that it was so good. I don’t often purchase books blindly these days. Part of the motivation was that a few weeks previously I had visited a great exhibition of maps in Canberra (National Library for all the Australians. Go see it!). It was a great surprise to have a major part of a chapter about one of the highlights of that exhibition, the Fra Mauro world map, an imposing approx 3m X 3m intricately detailed 15th century map.

So Simon has produced a wonderful work that expresses deep love for the subject. It is both a fun and informative read that is also well-written. I’d recommend this book for anyone who loves maps. Yes you!

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