"The Island of Lost Maps" tells the story of a curious crime spree: the theft of scores of valuable, centuries-old maps from some of the most prominent research libraries in the United States and Canada. When all was said and done, Gilbert Joseph Bland, Jr., had become the Al Capone of cartography, the most prolific American map thief in history.
Harvey pursues the Bland story for years, gathering news stories, conducting interviews and researching the world of map collecting, but never achieving his ultimate goal – an interview with the map thief himself. By the end of the book, Harvey wonders about his pursuit of the story and of his dogged attempts to interview and understand Gilbert Bland. He realizes, eventually, that he is obsessed with him and that it is not a healthy thing. It does not, however, turn him away from the story. He has to follow it through to the end.
Harvey introduces the reader to a variety of collectors and cartomaniacs. I don’t think that I realized before how many really old maps there were or how they were at one time, closely guarded state-secrets. You have to wonder how things would have turned out if Columbus’ brother, Bartolomeo, had not copied several Portuguese maps, (selling them at a tidy profit) and used the revealed knowledge to bolster the whole argument for Christopher’s voyage?
The collection of maps is not an inexpensive hobby; collectible maps cost thousands today. The truly rare can go at auction for significantly more than a million. Harvey writes extensively about a man who I guess is the foremost map dealer in the world (or was back in the 90’s), Graham Arader. Clearly he was helpful to Harvey, but I did not like him. Perhaps it is bad tempered jealousy on my part – Arader’s canny collecting seems to me almost solely responsible for the tremendous hike in antique map prices – but he seemed arrogant and smug. It is hard to like the super rich. And damn it, after reading about all those lovely maps, I kind of wanted one for myself.
Overall a good book. I learned a lot. Oh, yes – as for the physical book itself – I loved reading this edition – the size, the pages, the look – everything was just right.
Really, there are three threads in this book, and only one has to do much with the "cartographic crime" of the subtitle. The three threads intermingle throughout the book, more or less related.
First, there is a history of exploration and map-making. For me, this was the most interesting bit. It is accompanied by reproductions from old maps, illustrating what is being discussed.
Second is the story of map thievery that the book purports to be about. This part ties to the first, as some of the maps discussed in the history lesson, and shown in the illustrations, are the ones stolen. Anyway, the thief is named Gilbert Bland (and many other things), and he stole maps to turn around and sell. The author traces his criminal youth and later map-stealing history. There are a few holes in the story, though these are due to lack of records, rather than lack of author's research skill. I will lump into this part also the interviews with map collectors and dealers, as many of these people had stories to tell about interactions with Bland, or reflections on his crimes.
Third, there is an irritatingly self-conscious story of the author's own affinity for maps and his attempts to get Bland's whole story. Really, the book could have done without most of this first person hoopla. There are parts, such as the author's failed attempts to get interviews with Bland, that are pertinent, but mostly it's a lot if irrelevant navel-gazing.
I don't know, maybe the Gilbert Bland story by itself wasn't enough to fill a whole book, so we got this other stuff too?
But, read it if you want some light, but non-fiction, fluff for a beach day or something. It's about 350 pages, but the book's barely bigger than a mass-market paperback, so it;s not that long a read.
It's not bad, just the author forgot wheat the story was about.
The book is supposed to be about map thief Gilbert Bland Jr., who ripped maps out of library books and made a pretty good living at it until he got caught. Harvey clearly doesn't have enough material on Bland for a full-length book so he includes lots of junk that has no bearing on the story. It's like writing a story about a famous doctor and saying, "I had some cashews for breakfast and that takes me back to the main character of my story, because he was nuts." Harvery frequently inserts himself into the story in bizarre ways.
The point of no return for me was when Harvey begins describing how the ghost of a dead librarian felt about Bland's thefts. I'm sure this was based on extensive interviews with the ghost of the library. Hello, this isn't supposed to be a fiction! It was impossible to take anything Harvey said seriously after that chapter.
Skip this book and read "The Map Thief" instead... you'll get much more out of it.
However! It is still a good book, and it is full of the joy of libraries, books, maps, printing and knowledge; it is the literary equivalent of the images you get when you google "library porn" with safesearch on. Also, how have I lived in this area my whole life and never been to the Peabody library? Must remedy this soonest.
The book is written by a journalist who covered the case for a magazine. While it is a well written book with some catching turns of phrase, it is too long. There is too much padding out of the story, reflections on all things that could possibly be called upon in reference to maps, exploration, psychology etc etc. A shorter, tighter book would have been better.
Read July 2013
Miles Harvey says a lot about maps, and especially stolen maps, in his book "The Island of Lost Maps," but mostly he focuses on the cartographic crimes of Gilbert Bland. Bland made a good living by brazenly stealing valuable maps from libraries throughout North America and selling them to collectors and dealers.
But Bland is hardly the only person to steal maps from libraries in recent years. Libraries are not known for having tight security. Their reason for existence, after all, is to give the public access to information. And not every patron can be watched all the time. Bland would simply ask to see an old atlas and, when nobody else was around, use a razor blade to cut out one or more maps. He would return the atlas with the maps inside his shirt, and librarians would be none the wiser. After Bland was caught, not all the recovered stolen maps could be returned. Some libraries still didn't know anything was missing.
The Bland case and Harvey's book, published in 2000, have served to remind libraries that safeguarding valuable documents is another reason they exist.
It is naive to believe that where there is interest a market will not spring to life. However, I found myself absolutely enraged at the clinical nature of the dealings in what I believe are living works of science and art seamlessly blended to communicate information.
Maps are romantic and inspiring and frustrating. The black market in them is no less intriguing and depressing. To deface a book in a library is nothing to one who can see only the monetary value in a page. And there is a market for such people and such pages.
This is a well-written, enjoyably read tale of map-sellers and investigative journalism that has very little to do with the science of cartography, although I believe it to be enormously relevant to anyone interested in that science.
It raises ethical and moral questions. It raises questions about the purpose of maps and how they exist in our day-to-day lives and world. The author also, and more immediately, evokes a sense of the sacred in library spaces. I am still inspired to tour the libraries he describes, if only to gaze in their windows and think off all the pages left alone by thieving blades.
Harvey crafts the story like the best true-crime writers. The reader knows the crime and the criminal pretty much at the outset, but it’s the hunt for why? that propels the narrative. Along the way Harvey includes considerable information about map-making and the human fascination with maps since ancient times. I was captivated from the opening lines.