Can a book about maps really expand a geography junkie’s mind?

The certificate I received for my 3rd-place finish in the North Carolina state level of the 1995 National Geography Bee.
The certificate I received for my 3rd-place finish in the North Carolina state level of the 1995 National Geography Bee.
On the Map: A Mind-expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield Published by Gotham Books New York, 2012
On the Map: A Mind-expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks
by Simon Garfield

Published by Gotham Books
New York, 2012

I have always been a geography junkie. Well, at least since 2nd grade, anyway. That’s when my Aunt Linda gave me a Fisher-Price “Discovery Map” of the United States. Each state had a small hole in it that displayed a picture, and on the left-hand side of the map that was a light-blue dial. As you turned the dial, the pictures displayed a different piece of info for each state, including its capital—which is how I learned the capitals of all 50 states by the age of 8.

That map was probably the foundation of the geography knowledge that led me to win my middle school’s geography bee all three years I was there, and to win third place in the state geography bee when I was in 7th grade.

So I was eager to read On the Map: A Mind-expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield, whose Just My Type: A Book About Fonts I had read previously. Mr. Garfield didn’t disappoint.

The easiest way to explain what On the Map is about is to say that it’s a history of cartography. Which is true, but only partially. The book is organized in exactly the same way as Just My Type: generally in historical order, but the chapters are organized a little more thematically than they are chronologically. So while earlier chapters deal with ancient thinkers and the great explorers of the Age of Exploration and later chapters deal with digital cartography and GPS, the reader will not necessarily come away with a list of the dates when technological innovations happened or why or by whom.

As in Just My Type, between many of the chapters is a short interstitial, with a brief story relating to or expanding on the surrounding chapters. Many of the book’s best tidbits are found in these. In one, for example, Mr. Garfield explains that the common belief that the phrase “Here be dragons” marked unknown regions on old maps is simply untrue: there is no record that Hic sunt dracones appeared on any old map. In later ones, Mr. Garfield explores the map room that helped Winston Churchill and his allies win the Second World War, gender differences in reading maps, and why people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries believed it was plausible that Mars had canals—indeed, a planet-wide irrigation system—built by intelligent life.

A Fisher-Price Discovery Map of the United States, vintage 1987, just like the one my Aunt Linda bought me when I was in 2nd grade that sparked my love of geography.
A Fisher-Price Discovery Map of the United States, vintage 1987, just like the one my Aunt Linda bought me when I was in 2nd grade that sparked my love of geography.

Also as with Just My Type, sometimes On the Map can be a bit dry; it is, after all, a book about maps. And, like many nonfiction books these days, it’s probably longer than it needs to be, with 445 pages (including acknowledgments), 22 chapters (albeit usually short chapters), 15 interstitials, a foreword, an introduction, and an epilogue (and a bibliography and index, which bring the total length to 464 pages, not including the contents and other front matter).* The particular edition I read, published by Gotham Books in 2013, appears to have been edited for an American audience, trading British spellings such as organise for their American equivalents. But only clumsily so. Generally, the language has not been “translated”, leading to an awkward mix of American spellings and British phrases. And once I ran across a “boot” (instead of a car “trunk”).

But, in the end, can it live up to it’s claim that it is “mind-expanding”? Well, in my case, it certainly can. The final chapters close the book with an exploration of all the places we find maps in the world today, including video games, such as Skyrim, that are essentially giant maps (and apparently come with printed maps to help players navigate them). There’s an image of Saul Steinberg’s famous cover illustration for the 29 March 1976 issue of The New Yorker, a New Yorker’s view of the world which shows, in typical self-absorbed New York fashion, an outsized and overly important Manhattan, along with everything else. And the last numbered chapter in the book, 22, is on “Mapping the Brain”. Though I was certainly familiar with that phrase and concept, it hadn’t occurred to me that encephalography should be included in a book about cartography.

The Economist's 2009 parody of Saul Steinberg's famous 1976 cover for The New Yorker.
The Economist‘s 2009 parody of Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 cover for The New Yorker.

Maps have become so ubiquitous in our world today that it’s easy to forget how much we rely upon them. After all, I carry what is quite possibly the most detailed map of the world ever created, Google Maps, around with me every day in my pocket. At any moment, I can open a new tab in my internet browser and find a map of almost any place on the planet, including a full-color satellite image and, increasingly, a recent photo of what it looks like from the street. In such a world, it’s easy, even for a geography junkie like me, to forget how important and difficult a science cartography is, and how special maps are. Even I am far removed from my days of poring over maps of states, metropolitan areas, and city centers in my mom’s Rand McNally Road Atlas (thankfully, I still have a road atlas myself, though, it dates from 2007 and, sadly, probably hasn’t been on a road trip with me since then).

Mr. Garfield perhaps said it best: “The resulting maps also have an effect on the way we learn to see things. When we’re looking at maps on our dashboard or on phones as we walk, we tend not to look around or up so much. It is now entirely possible to travel many hundreds of miles—to the other end of a country, perhaps, or even a continent—without having the faintest clue about how we got there. A victory for GPS, a loss for geography, history, navigation, maps, human communications and the sense of being connected to the world all around us” (page 384).


* Add this sentence to the list of things that are probably longer than they need to be.

This review was also posted on Goodreads.

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