Review of On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does by

Book cover for On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does

This is the second map book I’ve read recently, the other being A History of the World in Twelve Maps. These two books are similar enough that I could spend the entire review comparing them, but I’d rather not do that. So let me make the comparison now and then move on: On the Map is neither as detailled nor, for me at least, as satisfying as A History of the World in Twelve Maps (or H12M, as I’ll call it from now on). Simon Garfield covers very similar territory less thoroughly. I’ll give him some points for style, but otherwise, H12M is the far surperior choice for people interested in history, maps, or the history of maps.

Where the two books diverge is probably in their audience: On the Map is ostensibly more about maps, with history as a backdrop to the story of cartography; H12M is more about history told through maps. So there’s that. But this is not good for On the Map, because I found that H12M often exceeded it in terms of the detail it goes into about the development and creation of maps.

I was thinking about how I read and remember non-fiction books while reading this. It has been over a year since I read H12M. I don’t remember much about it. My memory sucks. Why did I bother to read the book at all if I don’t remember anything that I learned from it? And if I’m not going to remember much from a book, why should I care if it is detailled or not?

Well, hopefully I did learn something from it, and it will bubble to the surface of my mind at the appropriate moment at a cocktail party where I can regurgitate it and look smarter than I am. And when that happens, it’s the details I recall. While reading about the Cassini project to map France or the acquisition of the Waldesemuller map in this book, I recalled Brotton’s discussions in H12M—I even went so far as to pull the book from my shelf and glance over those sections again.

So when I read non-fiction (and this is where I’ll stop comparing On the Map to H12M, I promise), I need little details that will get stuck in my brain like burrs. I’ll feel the itch but won’t necessarily know they are present until they resurface. Unfortunately, Garfield’s surface-treatment makes it harder for those burrs to form.

He’s at his best when discussing individuals, and particularly contemporary individuals he can interview himself. His journalist credentials are obviously on display when he discusses how he tracked down and met with an obscure person in the maps world. And those chapters are lovely. They don’t always stick to maps per se as the topic of discussion, but they show, as Garfield probably intends, the human element of mapmaking. Garfield successfully chronicles the way that mapmaking has mirrored the political and philosophical differences throughout history.

Some of my favourite chapters discuss how people relate to maps. Chapter 8 chronicles the rise of the atlas, and Chapter 16 talks about the evolution of guidebooks. Garfield goes beyond the nitty-gritty of how these maps were produced and talks more about the business and economics behind the mapmaking. I enjoyed reading about how the public seized upon maps as a new way of seeing their world (these days, who doesn’t check out their house on Google Street View?). And the idea that guidebooks revolutionized travel across a newly-industrialized Europe, especially for single women, was very interesting. It puts into perspective the literature of the time that I love to read.

In later chapters, Garfield goes on to address the rise of digital mapmaking. I wish he had done more with this: he pretty much just says, “it exists, and here’s how GPS works” but doesn’t go much deeper than that. He doesn’t talk too much about the surveillance implications of mapmaking. He doesn’t talk much about geocaching. He seems more interested in chronicling the rise of the various GPS and satnav firms, who bought whom, etc. For some people I’m sure this is very fascinating, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and it didn’t match the human element that Garfield elucidates in previous chapters.

On the Map is a very uneven book. At times it is sumptuous in its discussion of maps and mapmaking. At times it is disappointing in the directions that Garfield pursues—some of these are a matter of taste, some are a matter of style. It’s not my favourite map book, but I’d recommend it if all you want is a sporadic discussion of mapmaking.

Engagement

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