on_the_map_coverTitle: On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks
Author: Simon Garfield
Publisher: Gotham Books (Penguin)
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5
How I got it: Purchased on sale from Chapters/Indigo

My husband really has my number when it comes to books — I have him to thank for spotting this on a discount table in a local Chapters when we were out of town visiting his family. Maps? Awesome cover? Written by a guy whose previous book, which was all about typography, was a well-respected hit? On the Map promised to be super groovy.

And it was, for the most part. If there’s one thing you can say about Simon Garfield, he knows how to do his research, and he’s a bloodhound for fascinating trivia. There were a few surprising directions his book took, like the detours near the end discussing our attempts to map the human brain, as well as how cartography has undergone a bit of a renaissance with the advent of RPGs like Skyrim.

But overall, I liked On the Map far less than I hoped I would. For one thing, it’s exhaustive. From pocket maps to the great Age of Exploration to rare map dealing to forgeries to board games, Garfield covers almost every aspect of the history of cartography. And such exhaustiveness, along with multiple small digressions along the way, can get exhausting.

However, there was a crucial part of this history that was missing, and its absence stuck out like a sore thumb: there was almost no discussion of the actual surveying that people do to accurately render landscapes at scale. The closest we get to the sort of mathematics and fine-tuning involved with actually, you know, drawing a map comes in this description of Robert Louis Stevenson trying to replicate the map he created for Treasure Island:

An odd thing about the map of Treasure Island is that it is not the one that he consulted when he wrote his book. The original sketch was forever lost in transit between a post office in Scotland and his London publishers, Cassell. “The proofs came,” Stevenson recalled, “they were corrected, but I heard nothing of the map. I wrote and asked; was told it had never been received, and sat aghast.” So he redrew it, finding the experience both dispiriting and mechanical. “It is one thing to draw a map at random…and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the illusions contained in it, and, with a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the data.” What he was describing here was, of course, the horror facing all students of real-world cartography.

I guess what I really want to know is this: several times, Garfield draws a distinction between explorers — the people who actually went out and charted new lands — and cartographers — the people who collated all of the reports from different explorers and actually published the maps. What was the purpose of this difference, aside from the fact that the first group of people moved around and the second one didn’t? Would explorers just hand off their notes to a cartographer and expect them to make sense of the whole pile, or would there be a back-and-forth dialogue? I really wanted to know more about that nitty-gritty process, but On the Map kept that particular island of knowledge off the map.

What Tea Suits This Book?

Map-making is intimately connected to ideas of nationalism, ownership, and control. It was often used as a way to express and reinforce colonial power. So you might as well drink a tea that was also the result of colonial spycraft, interference and domination, like a brisk, business-like, and tongue-scalding Assam.