On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way It Does

Author: Simon GarfieldPublisher: Profile Books

I always thought there was something profoundly magical about maps. As a child, they afforded me a tantalizing glimpse of the world out there, and how huge it actually is. Spelling out strange names for the very first time, tracing mighty rivers with my fingers as they wound through far-off continents, I was in awe of all the adventures that lay waiting. The heroic explorers in my children’s books in mind, I promised myself I would one day run off to find undiscovered lands in search of hidden civilizations and mythical creatures. All I needed was a map to guide my way.

Yet over the years, something has been lost. Maps are all around us every day, guiding us through the mundane. They’re an article of use, getting us from A to B, and back. There are no blanks left, the seas are sailed, all myths and legends reduced by common knowledge to what they really are: Mirages and tricks of the mind. Maps show us – plain and clear – the world as it is.

And here’s a man who has come to tell us… we’re wrong. Simon Garfield has wrought this superb gem of a book, On the Map, which lets people rediscover the joy of finding uncharted, mysterious worlds on our very doorstep. In a jaunty pace, he directs readers through the history of maps, looking at them from almost every conceivable angle, and with contagious glee turns our attention to the extraordinary journey mankind has undertaken to chart the world we live in. Exciting, imaginative and suspenseful; with On the Map, Simon Garfield has created something which is nothing short of The Lonely Planet to the story of map-making – and map-reading.

This magnificent book reminds us of the fact that – from the earliest cave paintings to this advanced age of Google Streetview, the London underground and Skyrim – a map is simply a visual mnemonic aid that says: ‘I am here, surrounded by all that I know, and beyond that lies the great unknown.’ With an uncanny eye for both detail and spectacle, the author accompanies us through all the wrong turns that explorers and mapmakers have taken in describing the world. Did you know California once floated off into the Pacific, with us mistaking it for an island for more than a hundred years, only for it to be hauled back to shore by diligent cartographers as late as the 19th century? Did you know that European explorers in Africa searched endlessly to overcome the impassable Mountains of Cong, only to find that they never existed? Through such haphazard leaps and bounds, Garfield draws in his readers in a way that is highly intelligent, surprisingly funny, and completely spellbinding.

The chapters are a well-picked selection of essays on cartography, all of manageable length, interlinked with poignant and amusing columns on the subject. The beauty of this is that you don’t have to read the chapters in any particular order, should you choose to. However, when read from front to back, they produce an overwhelmingly exhaustive compendium of all the wonders and follies the world of maps has to offer. My only complaint would be the quality of illustrations: For such a delightfully visual subject, what you need is an extravagant display of bright and full-spread maps! I do believe a luxurious edition is in order.

As I put down my new favourite book on my nightstand, with amusement I realise that maybe having grown up isn’t so bad after all. If there is one thing Garfield’s On the Map has taught me it’s that there’s still plenty to explore – not just in the world outside, but rather in the way we continue to look at it.

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