On the Map

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On the Map
Simon Garfield • Gotham Books, NY, 2013, 464 pp.
Book cover: On the Map, by Simon Garfield

Maps — the two-dimensional representation of our 3-D world — get a loving requiem that starts in the dust (literally: the first maps were likely drawn in the sand). From there, author Simon Garfield takes us for an entertaining journey through Ptolemy and Mercator, onward to the first strip maps that enabled people to tour Europe guide-free, and through the Fodor guides and their modern, Lonely-Planet descendants.

Garfield takes detours into maps of buried treasure, before inexorably running aground with the map-killing technology of GPS.

I would have opted for tighter editing, and also for an explication of how the early explorers — Captain James Cook, Chris Columbus, and their ilk — actually made their maps. If longitude was sloppy until the late 18th century, how did the seafarers chart uncharted waters?

Garfield tells us that Columbus “was working from a system of ‘dead reckoning,’ navigating by a nervous combination of compass and stars, making exact measurement impossible.” Sailors, in fact, dead reckon by combining compass readings with speed estimates based on bits of wood thrown from the boat.

As the tale reaches the modern era, Garfield recounts master map thieves slashing their way through map libraries. Best practice: you will be seen as trustworthy if you surreptitiously “drop” a big banknote on the floor, then deliver it to the librarian.

The author never met a map he didn’t like, and that’s why his conclusion is so predictably bitter. Inevitably, a map book must dead-end with the modern replacement for the map: the digital device.

Now that digital maps “live” inside millions of gadgets that will soon spout directions in 100 languages, who will learn to read a map? When digital-mapping technology reached cars a decade or so back, Garfield writes, “People wished to be led, and they were willing to trust anonymous companies to take them to places they had previously managed to find by themselves.”

With technological map replacement, he concludes, “It is now possible to travel many hundreds of miles … without having the faintest clue about how we got there. A victory for GPS, a loss for geography, history, navigation, maps, human communication and the sense of being connected to the world all around us.”

Soon enough, maps will be, paradoxically, both pervasive and obsolete.

– David J. Tenenbaum