Maps are sexy. They are rich founts of information in text and picture form: layers of semantics crowded on rectangles or squares of paper, pixels of possibility on a 3D representation of the world. They are an essential form of communication, but they are often overlooked. Let’s face it: we take maps for granted. This is especially true now that Google and other companies have made it easy to explore the Earth virtually. As these tools become commonplace, the technology fades into the background and becomes more like a pencil (a piece of technology, but one so familiar as to be rather unremarkable) than a supercomputer. So it behoves us to stop and consider the staggering achievement that is mapping, particularly when so much of what we know stretches all the way back to a time before we had precise ways to measure time and space. Contrary to popular belief, the ancient Greeks figured out that the Earth was round pretty quickly. And Plato’s imaginary depiction of the Earth as observed from space is similar to what we actually found when we finally made it up there in the twentieth century.
Jerry Brotton has written a history of the world, and he chose to do it through maps. Make no mistake, though: A History of the World in Twelve Maps is mostly about maps. Shocking, I know. For the history component, he traces the social and scientific forces that influenced the production of the different maps he discusses. He links mapmaking to the search for knowledge as well as our desire to organize that knowledge. Finally, he explains how different maps served different purposes—some practical, some political, but all philosophical. Mapmaking is both a science and an art, but regardless of its classification, it is an ideological exercise.
One striking thing about this book is its remarkable evenness. I find that with non-fiction that takes a segmented approach like this, most books tend to be uneven: a few chapters are very interesting, most are reasonably interesting, and then a few are just not that satisfying—kind of a normal curve of chapter quality, if you will. This isn’t the case here. I’m not saying that every chapter is amazing, and I raced through some while lingering in others. But every chapter is informative, interesting, and intriguing in its own way. Brotton has selected a good sample of maps throughout the ages. He begins each chapter by introducing the map (or mapmaker) before backtracking, explaining the historical context in which the map arose. From this, we come to understand how the drive for the acquisition of knowledge in Alexandria influenced Ptolemy’s groundbreaking maps based on geometry. We learn how the relationships between China, Japan, and Korea influenced the mapping of North Korea in the sixteenth century. We learn how revolutionary France delayed the completion of the most ambitious survey project for its time, and property disputes in England resulted in British Africa and India being better-mapped than the UK.
Got all that? Good, there’s a test at the end.
As you might have gathered, there is a lot in this book. It was a good deal, considering that it comes with two sections full of colour plates of various maps. Brotton has obviously done the research (which, much to my pleasure, he has meticulously documented in endnotes). The result is an information-dense look at history and mapmaking, and while this is never boring or dry, at times it is a little overwhelming. I’m not sure how much I will retain a month or a year after reading this book.
This is always a danger with these kinds of books, and it’s a difficult pitfall to avoid. By covering so many topics, even with the depth and interest that Brotton displays, A History of the World in Twelve Maps becomes little more than a survey of world history. Entire books can be (and have been) written about Ptolemy, or revolutionary France, or Mercator. Still, this is a minor complaint—and, considering I’m complaining about how much the book tells me, not really a complaint at all. If anything, this just means that I have a better idea of which books to seek out next....
In this respect, A History of the World in Twelve Maps reminds me a great deal of A Short History of Nearly Everything, a similarly sprawling survey of history through the lens of scientific discovery. I love the latter so much, and while Brotton’s style isn’t quite as engaging or stimulating, he manages to replicate a lot of the sense of wonder that Bryson creates. He communicates how polarizing the use of maps was in sixteenth century Europe, when Castile and Portugal were fighting over the rights to the entire world. He replicates the excitement that must have been palpable for those mapmakers involved in the surveying of eighteenth-century France. These days, maps are a commodity (or a service)—then, maps were a staggering achievement of science, art, and engineering.
As a mathematician, I particularly enjoyed when Brotton mentioned the mathematics behind mapmaking. The Earth is round (an oblate spheroid, to be pedantic about it), and it is not possible to project the curved surface of the Earth onto a 2-dimensional piece of paper with perfect fidelity. You either get distorted areas or distorted angles (or both), which means your map will look funny, or it will be useless for navigation, generally considered two very important aspects of a map. For as long as we have been making maps, we’ve tried to determine the best way to approximate the 3-d curvature of the Earth on a 2-d piece of paper. (Brotton also goes Borgesian and talks about how we can’t have a "perfect map" unless the scale is 1:1, which would be silly. I remember talking about this back in my Philosophy of Science class days.) Now, for those of you who have been reading this paragraph and are about to scramble wildly to cancel your Amazon order, wait! There are no complicated equations in here, no mathematical sleights of hand. Brotton merely mentions the tricky and impressive math involved (or highlights when some, like Mercator, deduce a projection without knowledge of the math involved). So it’s possible to appreciate the beautiful and necessary mathematics here without becoming drawn in too deep.
Of course, as with any survey-type book of history, there are things that Brotton left out that I would have liked to see. He laudably devotes a chapter to China and Korea, but the rest of the book is very much about the Western world. Absent is any discussion of Australian Aboriginal songlines or the mapping techniques of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Brotton describes attempts to map Africa but spends no time discussing how the indigenous inhabitants found their way around for tens of thousands of years. Of course, it’s true that many of these cultures don’t have maps in the conventional sense; they rely on oral tradition and reckoning by the sun and the stars. Even if that is the case, Brotton makes a passionate plea for a very open definition of a map in his introduction. He doesn’t want to limit himself to discussing small rectangles of paper—and so, it would have been nice to see him branch out some more.
The book is at its best when Brotton explains how the desires or aims of a government or an individual influenced the development and deployment of maps in that time period. (I was very fascinated by his recounting of the conflict between Castile and Portugal and Magellan’s subsequent, ill-fated circumnavigation.) He makes it very clear that mapmaking is not something done in isolation; it is a political and philosophical activity that relies as much on the allegiances of the mapmaker as it does the objectivity of the Earth’s landscape and geography. The premise, telling the history (or selected parts of history) through maps is quite cool. Brotton largely succeeds at what he sets out as his mission in the introduction. At times the information he includes is a little much for a book of this type, but that’s not a deal-breaker. With amazing maps and enthusiastic explanations, Brotton educates and captivates.