‘On the Map’ by Simon Garfield

April 16, 2015 at 7:23 am 2 comments

I started Simon Garfield’s On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks in January. Two months later, at the end of March, I had gotten through about a quarter of the book. Then, I finished it the first week of April.

To say that On the Map was slow going to begin is an understatement. But, as illustrated by my sudden sprint to the finish, it would also be unfair to characterize the book by its first quarter.

On the Map turned out to be one of those glorious history books focused on various forgotten corners of history that provide an endless and enticing parade of factoids and anecdotes about their particular corner. When done poorly, these kinds of books offer a disjointed view of history that jolts you awkwardly through time and space. When done well, as Garfield does, these books leave you thirsting for more and racing to the library for the full story behind various allusions and name drops.

And Garfield does this genre so, so well. (His previous book was the much-lauded history of typography Just My Type, my copy of which is currently languishing somewhere in my much-maligned storage unit.) He manages to juggle both time and narrative, tracing the arc of cartography (and all its attendant subjects from surveying to exploration) fluidly and clearly from ancient Greece through to smartphones.

That very breadth of time is the main failing of On the Map. It isn’t that Garfield does a better or worse job of presenting any particular cartographic moment. Rather, with such a extensive swath of history, it’s highly improbable that every single historic moment presented will interest any given reader.

For me, my slow plodding through the first quarter of the book was because I simply did not find ancient Greek perceptions of the world, the failings of medieval cartography, and the early days of world maps (did they have poles?!) that interesting. But, once I reached the Golden Age of Exploration…WOW. I have not read anything as fascinating and eminently share-able as the middle section of On the Map in a long, long time. It was amazing.

And then…well, Garfield lost me again as he entered the 20th century. This is likely in no way his fault. I simply found the modern tales of map-making and globe re-imagining to be significantly less compelling than those spanning from 1569 to roughly 1920. He spent five chapters at the end of the book discussing how we pretty much know where everything is now with increasing specificity. Yawn. Where’s the adventure in that?

Of course, by that point, the solid middle section of the book had won my loyalty so I was able to zip through these last few chapters with much more speed than the first few.

All the same, readers would be well-advised to give On the Map the benefit of the doubt. I am tremendously glad I persevered through the inauspicious beginnings because I full-on adored the middle of this book. And I think the personal historical preferences of other readers might well change others’ experiences with this book. Perhaps other readers would love the beginning and hate the middle. Or others adore the end and found the beginning a bit tedious.

Suffice it to say, there’s pretty much something for everyone in On the Map. It’s just a matter of staying true to your own course and finding it.


Entry filed under: Non-fiction. Tags: , , .

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