On the map : a mind-expanding exploration of the way the world looks

by Simon Garfield

Hardcover, 2013




New York, N.Y. : Gotham Books, c2013.


Examines the pivotal relationship between mapping and civilization, demonstrating the unique ways that maps relate and realign history, and shares engaging cartography stories and map lore.

Media reviews

Het interessante van wereldkaarten is dat je altijd kunt zien uit welk deel van de wereld ze afkomstig zijn. Is de wereldkaart van Europese makelij, dan ligt Europa netjes in het midden. Amerika is het Verre Westen, China het Verre Oosten. Op Chinese wereldkaarten is China letterlijk het Rijk van het Midden en Amerika de Oriënt. Europa is een marginaal gebied aan de westrand. De oudste kaart van Chinese makelij dateert uit de 12de eeuw en heet toepasselijk 'De kaart van China en barbaarse landen'. Wereldkaarten zijn ook politieke statements. Over het feit dat de aarde een bol is, bestaat tegenwoordig enige consensus. Echter: als je van een bol een platte kaart wilt maken, moet je met landoppervlakten gaan sjoemelen. De wereldkaart waarmee inwoners van westerse landen opgroeien, is gebaseerd op de klassieke projectie van Gerardus Mercator uit 1569.
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Mr. Garfield does not pretend to be a serious historian. (Neither did Ken Jennings, whose 2011 "Maphead" covered some of the same terrain.) His gift is for cherry-picking factoids, and his latest book, "On the Map," is full of little conversation pieces. But this book is diminished by the way it has been produced, with an alluringly tinted antique map of Africa on its cover and nothing but smudgy gray illustrations inside.
There is a great deal that is good and charming and fun about this book. But overall, Garfield seems like that most frustrated of soldiers, the general who has to deal in the field with a battle to be fought at that nightmare spot right in the middle of a swamp of information irrelevant to his needs, and where no soldier ever wants to be: He is floundering in a sea of facts, lost at the join of four maps.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Widsith
Amiable, intermittently fascinating and too comprehensive for its own good – On the Map is all over the map. When it's good, it's very good, at least if you're a chartophile like me, and it offers a rich storehouse of anecdotes on everything and everyone from Ptolemy to Skyrim. But as a single narrative it never really hangs together.

Did I know, before I read this, that the concept of ‘orienting’ oneself comes from the fact that medieval maps had east at the top? If I did, I'd forgotten it. And it's always fun to read about the kind of peoples that populated those early maps, not just dragons and sea monsters but exotic cryptozoologica from the Classical world like the sciapods (‘A mythical race of people supposed to have lived at the southern edge of the ancient Greek and Roman world, who each had a single leg ending in a foot of immense size with which they shaded themselves from the heat of the sun’ – OED).

Other oddities survived to the modern era. The Mountains of Kong first appeared on James Rennell's map of Africa in 1798 and were still being charted into the early twentieth century, despite the fact that they were a figment of Rennell's imagination. And even modern maps have deliberately invented features – every A–Z of London includes a so-called ‘phantom’, typically a remote cul-de-sac, which has no real-world correlative and is purely there for copyright purposes.

So far so good. But this book tries to do way too much. There is a chapter on Treasure Island, just because a map was vaguely involved. There is a chapter on Scott's expedition to the Antarctic. A crude map was indeed drawn of their route, but this is an incident from the history of exploration, not of cartography. There is a chapter on the boardgame Risk. By the time we got on to Martian canals and CT scans of brain tissue I was getting the distinct feeling that Garfield had let his remit slip away from him.

What I really wanted was a more focussed story that told me more about – for instance – the different projections that people have used to try and solve the problem of representing a spherical surface on a plane. I was actually expecting this evolution to be the bulk of the book, but in fact it's all crammed into one short section on Mercator.

It's all a bit of a shame, since a lot of the problems here could have been simply dealt with by judicious use of the backspace key during the editing process. Still, the writing is decent, the anecdotal value is high, and if you're prepared to skim through some irrelevancies there's a lot here to learn and enjoy.
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LibraryThing member whitreidtan
Don't you just love maps? I do. I used to love having possession of the atlas whenever we went on a road trip, carefully following along, tracing my finger on the wiggling lines across the page. And one of the very best books ever given to me came from my college geology professor and was an enormous world atlas that showed maps of all sorts of interesting things. I still own it although many of its maps are sadly out of date now and I occasionally open it up and leaf through it, letting my imagination take me places on its maps that I've never visited I love my old globe that shows Germany as two separate countries and the USSR as one monolithic country. In his accessible and informative book about maps, their history, what they tell us about ourselves, and their future incarnations, Simon Garfield has captured the fascination we human beings have long had with maps. On the Map is a lay cartographer's dream, engrossing and packed with wonderful tidbits of information about where we are in the world, where we've been, and where we are going.

Ranging from the very first written maps still in existence today to the state of the art mapping we are doing now not only of physical place but of other unknown areas like the brain, this book traces the exciting progress from unknown to known. The book takes mapping and the history surrounding it and grounds it firmly in the easily understandable language of popular science. Garfield is clearly passionate about the subject and he casts a wide net here concentrating not just on maps as they evolved and changed throughout history but also discussing the lives of those who advanced our knowledge of the world and our place in it, the explorers as well as the influential cartographers who never left their own homes. He touches on the odd and fascinating ways that maps have been used and reputed to have been used in modern times such as tracking the movements of a probable murderer and encased in Monopoly games to show WWII prisoners the way out of their POW camps.

The book dispels some long-standing cartological myths and offers insight into the source of common phrases: "Here be dragons" was never actually printed on a map to indicate a dearth of information and "in the limelight" started because of the use of small calcium oxide (lime) lights to map Ireland through its constant fog and mist and which subsequently found use in the theater. There are portions on the chicanery practised by map, the forgeries and the thieves, and the errors, intentional or not, that existed unchallenged for so long. Garfield covers pirate maps and the lure of "X marks the spot" and other map related things that have so long caught our collective fancies. The tidbits of information are not so in depth as to be overwhelming to the lay reader and each of the chapters is fairly self contained so that this is the perfect book into which to dip. The maps aren't the greatest quality but they will pique the interest of the reader to find out more. On the Map is a delightful wander through the stories, history, and anecdotes surrounding maps and our insatiable desire to explore, especially for anyone who once willingly unfolded all those road maps impossible to return to their original size simply for the pleasure of perusing them.
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LibraryThing member lorax
I'm a map geek, but if you're interested in On the Map you probably are as well. Garfield traces the history of cartography, alternating chapters on general historical overviews with shorter explorations of particular maps (the London Tube map, Snow's cholera map of London) that he finds especially interesting - some are only tangentially related to maps (a chapter on the history of guidebooks, and one on maps of fictional locations such as Middle-Earth) but most are interesting and those that aren't are short.

Beginning with ancient Greek maps (after a nod to earlier maps, most of which do not survive) he meanders through the history of cartography, stopping at a medieval Mappa Mundi discovered in Hereford Cathedral, debunking the myth of "here there be dragons" (mapmakers preferred to fill blank spaces either by printing place names on the land rather than the water, or by simply making up geographical features out of thin air), and profiling collectors and creators of impressive maps.

One recurring theme throughout the book is the self-centered view many people bring to maps; they'll search for their hometown, their street, their house. In recent years, he points out, this tendency has been literalized with the spread of smartphone maps; you are always here, at the center, the map showing the world around you rather than your place in the world; while ancient maps would be centered on the city in which they were created, and medieval European maps on Jerusalem, the map in your hands now is almost certainly centered directly on itself.

A final note of caution - as several other reviewers have noted, the book suffers from a lack of high-quality reproductions of any of the maps in question. This may be corrected in the final hardcover release (I read an ARC); if not it is a sad oversight.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
This is a marvellous book. Basically a history of map-making it also includes a fascinating perspective on both the classical and renaissance ages. Garfield clearly loves maps himself and the clarity of his prose helps to impart that zest to his reader.
He starts by recounting the Greeks' theories of geography, astonomy and cosmosgraphy, and rapidly convinces us of the sheer genius that they brought to their field. For example, in the third century BC Erastosthenes of Alexandria, renowned mathematician, geographer, philosopher, athlete, poet, musician and general polymath about town, compared his observations of the elevation of the solstice sun at noon in his home town with what he found in Swenet (modern-day Aswan), and was not merely able to confirm that the Earth is a sphere, but to calculate the size of it. His calculations suggested that the circumference of the Earth is 25,000 miles. As we now know, the circumference is actually 24,901 miles, so his calculations were impressive to say the least.
From Erastosthemes Garfield takes us through Ptolemy (whose concentric sphere model of cosmology would remain dominant throughout the civilised world for fifteen hundred year before being debunked by Copernicus) to the Renaissance manificence of Mercator and Moll.
He recounts the history of the Ordnance Survey (though I would recommend that readers with a p[articular interest in this might prefer Rachel Hewitt's marvellous "Map of a Nation"), and dwells with affection on the spate of satirical maps that became popular in the nineteenth century, showing John Bull or menacing Russian octopuses (octopi?) looming over the rest of Europe. I particularly enjoyed his chapter on the development of the London A-Z. In his later chapters he explains the methodology (and some of the pitfalls) of the modern obsession with sat-nav technology, though he is confident that, regardless of their convenience, they will never supplant the traditional map. In between most of the chapters Garfield offers smaller sections addressing a particularly quirky aspect of map history.
I found the later chapters slightly less engrossing than those covering the early centuries but all in all this was a fascinating, lucid and immensely enjoyable book.
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LibraryThing member stellarexplorer
I love maps, and I very much wanted to love this book. Garfield has collected a wealth of tales, anecdotes and miscellany about maps and cartography. It all fell a bit short for me. As interesting as individual sections at times were, the totality failed to coalesce into a cohesive whole. I was left unable to connect with what felt like isolated essays, some of interest, others less so. Still, I suspect for the cartography fan there will be plenty here to enjoy given the effort to seek it.… (more)
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
I’m a map freak, so I found many tidbits to enjoy in this collection of short essays, some only 2 pages long. Collectively they touch on many of the small steps made in presenting our world in two-dimensions and, later on, via globes and electronic formats such as Google Maps, GPS, and game-playing.

Another reviewer has commented that the book is very Western-oriented, but it is also European-centered, with the majority of weight given to Britain. There are numerous black and white photos, only some of which satisfactorily illustrate the points being made, due to lack of size or color. Color inserts, or better yet a large, full-color coffee-table format, would have been much more enjoyable, informative, and successful.

Definitely worth dipping into (and a keeper for my own collection), but expect neither a comprehensive history nor a meditation on the way humans have used maps over the years. Includes a 3-page bibliography and a detailed index.
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LibraryThing member bluepigeon
Thank you Goodreads and Gotham for the advance readers copy!

Mapping the moral Christian's journey, mapping the Facebook connections around the world, mapping the brain, mapping you as the dot walking across Central Park, mapping Mars, mapping the poles, mapping disease and poverty, mapping for fun, as satire, as a political statement... Garfield sets out from the beginnings of mapping and explores nearly all aspects of this pictorial depiction of surroundings and imagined places, from triangulation to map collecting. He writes about gallant explorers, a California that drifts away now and then, doomed voyages, misnamed continents, and perhaps most interestingly, map enthusiasts who, one way or another, made their mark in the way we draw and see the world. From cave drawings to atlases to globes, Garfield seems to cover great distances seamlessly. In a way, his book is also "travel by map," similar to the little plane leading a dotted line in Hollywood films, except the book travels through space, time, and perhaps other [imagined] dimensions.

Recommended for those who like maps, travel, and history.
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LibraryThing member tim.taylor
I like maps, and I liked this book. If you're the kind of person who has browses aimlessly through atlases, if you like to fiddle for hours with Google Maps, if you grew up folding and unfolding paper maps, then there will be something in this book for you.

It's a collection of stories and anecdotes, wandering through the history of maps in the same way you might wander through the maps themselves. Ancient maps, medieval maps, the maps of the explorers, strip maps, subway maps and the new online maps are all represented in these pages.

This is not an academic treatise. You will find a bibliography, picture credits, and an index, but there are no footnotes nor other extensive documentation or referencing. It's clearly intended to be popular nonfiction, a book for reading and enjoying, not studying. It's readable, engaging and even a little fun.

I agree with the earlier reviewer regarding the quality of the maps themselves. In my paperback “advance uncorrected proof,” provided through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, the maps are all black and white and of fairly poor quality. I hope that a little more attention will be paid to the maps in the final published edition, which I intended to buy regardless.
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LibraryThing member lizzybeans11
I was interested in reading this book because I am, like many, very fond of old maps. This is quite a hefty read, that explores connections between the earliest known maps etched on the walls of caves, and how we use maps today.

As Garfield pointed out in the book several times, when we look at a map we all try to make a connection to our current selves and our past. Similarly, I greatly enjoyed his look at maps from fictional works that I am particularly fond of; Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Skyrim, etc. The draws on popular culture kept me going when things started to get a bit dry.

I originally thought I was going to struggle through this book, but I had a long flight and decided to take this with me so I would be forced to read it. I became enthralled and am glad I made it all the way through because it really was very interesting. The only downfall was that some of the images of the map were very low-quality scans. It would be great to see this in a version with full color, hi-res illustrations.
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LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
Love a good map. This book whizzes through the history, never getting boring. Could have actually done with a little more detail: a few less anecdotes and some slower working-through of the history of Mercators, etc.
LibraryThing member waitingtoderail
An enjoyable jaunt through the world of maps and mapmakers, for those with little background in the subject or just beginning to get interested. For those with slightly more than a cursory knowledge of cartography, the book will be somewhat boring, as little new ground is covered, and the breadth with which it covers the topic causes a lot of the depth to be lost. Should be a backbone item in any cartography collection, but will rarely be consulted again by anyone who moves forward with the topic.… (more)
LibraryThing member Magus_Manders
Simon Garfield's previous books have proven that he knows how to really nerd out on a subject with passion, and On the Map continues that trend with panache.

On the Map is largely a history of cartography with a focus on the individuals that actually make maps, rather than those who tell them what there is to chart (though he exhibits at multiple points that the person with the pen can carry a rather more lasting power than the one with the ship). Dava Sobel's introduction is tritely cliched enough to skip, though short and friendly enough to put up with, as it is quickly overshadowed by Garfield's introduction: a map of Facebook. One of the prevailing themes is how vitally high-tech maps have always had to be, shaping the history of their day as every new advance gives us a theoretically clearer view of what our world looks like. Between chapters dealing with both themes and time periods are small studies on particularly curious maps or movements, such as California's history as an island or the production of the London Tube map, much in the same way his Just my Type spotlighted particular typefaces. The uncorrected proof read here was filled with excellent illustrations, but one may hope that the final product includes some color plates as well, for the black and whites do not do many of these stunning maps justice.

Garfield gives the reader a very broad array of history, including topics like the neurology of map reading, though a few chapters do fall flat. When he gets to GPS/sat nav, his tone goes from pleasantly scholarly to an Andy Roonyesque personal narrative on his dislike and concern over the general loss of map literacy. Likewise his chapter on mapping in videogames, which brings up a really interesting topic, falls into the same pits as almost every writer who tries to write about games for a non-gamer audience: he spends too much time half-heatedly defending the game's integrity and not enough time actually making a point. In addition, in an attempt to describe technical mapping concepts to the layperson, Garfield often over-simplifies to the point that the reader does not have enough information to get even an inkling of how triangulation works, etc. This, perhaps, is a flaw of most popular sciences, though, and must not be too harsh a criticism.

Just as Garfield opens with Facebook, he ends with Google, firmly planting mapping as a modern technology evolving into new media. In that way, On the Map is a book on the state of the art, the finger in the cover firmly stating that maps are here for us now, and are going nowhere.
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LibraryThing member msilverman
"On the Map" is a wonderful, rambling tour through the world of maps, focusing on major events in mapmaking history as well as the various social and cultural functions maps have played over time. Like any good journey, the book is filled with lots of side-trips covering topics such as the development of travel guidebooks, the role of the modern GPS, and maps of hidden treasures. Each major chapter is followed by a "mini-chapter" covering bits of map-making trivia. The book is also well-illustrated - if the author talks about a map, there's probably an image of it nearby - this isn't a picture-book, but there are enough images that you don't run screaming with frustration to Google every other page to actually see the map under discussion. The writing style is breezy and well-informed, with bits of humor scattered throughout. For anyone already interested in maps, this is a must-read (although an expert or specialist will find much of the material stuff they already know). For the curious reader who is not already a map-head - they too will enjoy the book due to the accessible style of the writing. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member datrappert
Garfield is an agreeable tour guide for a history of maps. The book can't be called comprehensive, but the author succeeds in educating the reader (even a reader who has always loved maps) about maps and mapmakers. The episodic chapters introduce us to an interesting group of characters, including Lewis and Clark, polar explorers, an unlikable map dealer, and a globe maker. Garfield takes us up to the present day with a visit to Google Maps and ventures into maps in video games as well. By the end, you'll be wanting to pull out that old Atlas you bought at the library sale 40 years ago to see what surprises it may hold!… (more)
LibraryThing member debnance
It probably doesn't surprise you that, in addition to being a book geek and a techno geek, I'm a map geek.

Are you a map geek, too?

If you are, then this book is for you. Every story out there with a map subtext is here. Treasure maps. Maps from Lewis & Clark. Map thieves. The story of GPS.

Read it. Even if you are just a little bit map geek-y. It makes for fascinating reading.
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LibraryThing member vpfluke
This is an excellent book about maps and their history up to the current day. 22 topics are covered in an engaging manner. It is more than just a geography book. Reference is made to the Great Library at Alexandria, the history of cholera control in London, and mapping of the brain. Simon Garfield writes in a way without boring substratum data, but keeps ones interest throughout. He takes you through some unfamiliar territory, like the finding of the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral, the mapping of a non-existent moutain chain in West Africa, and a history of guidebooks. I am really enchanted by this book, and I can even reread entries without being bored.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
I've loved poring over maps and globes for as long as I can remember so I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Garfield takes readers on a fascinating, informative, and entertaining tour of cartographic history.
LibraryThing member sgump
One appropriate adjective for describing Simon Garfield's output over the past decade or so would be prolific. His crossover nature--his flair for quasi-journalistic treatments of topics, issues, and ideas of interest to the "common reader"--commands interest across the media. In his On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, Garfield promises--and mostly delivers--an edifying read. The string of chronologically arranged essays, punctuated by shorter reflections and vignettes he's entitled "Pocket Maps," touches on a remarkable range of topics (from technicalities of the organization of Britain's Ordnance Survey in the eighteenth century to banalities of the location of Jennifer Aniston's [onetime] Los Angeles house in Brentwood). The book, with numerous monochrome images (many cartographic in nature), is nicely designed--fitting, given that an earlier book of Garfield's was on typefaces--and the Archer typeface, especially, is fast becoming a favorite of mine.… (more)
LibraryThing member Dystopos
A thoroughly enjoyable whirlwind tour through map-related topics. Garfield gives us some fun, informative chapters, alternately stately and concise, ranging from pre-history to mental maps to maps of the mind to Google Earth with an abundance of choice tidbits of trivia.

The chapters are generally ordered chronologically, but not in a way that builds upon any overarching theme. I don't think it's to the detriment of the work that the individual articles are disconnected, but the contrivance of inserting awkward segues to make the transitions from chapter to chapter only highlights their disconnectedness.

I read an "uncorrected proof" for LibraryThing Early Reviewers. The illustrations in the copy I was sent were too small and not well-reproduced. The book would benefit from full-color fold-out illustrations, or at least a companion website with high-quality images for the reader to explore. If the illustrations are higher quality in the published book, you can add a star to my rating.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
I have been fascinated by maps since childhood. This is a fascinating book about the history of maps and map-making from the very earliest representations on stone, clay tablet, papyrus and parchment through the classics like Eratosthenes, Claudius Ptolemy, Mercator and a host of Dutchmen, to Google Maps and Skyrim, and even mapping of the cerebral cortex. It is never less than intriguing, though I thought some parts were a little trivial and the vignettes at the end of most chapters often jarred rather with the content of the chapters before and after and interrupted the flow. More seriously, the reproduction of the many illustrations was rather poor and it was often hard to make out much detail. There were no colour illustrations, though there was a fold out colour map in the Waterstones exclusive edition of the book which I borrowed from a colleague (thanks, Ian!). Overall, though, a great read for anyone with curiosity about the world about them. 4.5/5… (more)
LibraryThing member JoeWirtley
Did not enjoy this one.
LibraryThing member EowynA
From the early days of recorded time, people have made maps, or at least descriptions of where important places are relative to the writers' location. This book starts with maps of the Ancient Greeks, and progresses towards the present, then leaps off the earth to maps of Mars, and into ourselves and maps of the brain. Alongside this chronological presentation are digressions on various map-related topics. "Here be dragons" was a fascinating little side trip - turns out that those words do not actually appear on any maps found so far, though there are phrases that are close. But first and foremost, this book is composed of stories about the maps - who created them, who used them, why they exist. There are the stories of places on maps but nowhere on Earth, like the Mountains of Kong. There are stories of the creation of the London Tube Map, a murder mystery, and Antarctica.

For anyone interested at all in maps and the stories they tell, this is a delightful book. It is arranged in short chapters, easily read in fits and starts. And fun.
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LibraryThing member invisiblelizard
Not bad as an comprehensive overview. Definitely more than I ever wanted to know about maps, but most of it was interesting nonetheless. At times I felt he was trying to hard to fill up the book with information (to make it "book sized" and sell more copies, perhaps) but in the end I learned a few things and really that's what I'm reading these books for anyway. -KA… (more)
LibraryThing member rakerman
A comprehensive exploration of maps and mapping, with short chapters on different topics. Starts from the earliest days of mapping, up to the present. Should have ended with Skyrim, but carried on for about 50 more pages in a rather jumbled ending.
LibraryThing member mcola
If you have a lifelong love of maps as I do, you too will very much enjoy this book. I particularly enjoyed reading about our relation to maps. How they are made and for what purposes. The book on the history of cartography from prehistoric times to modern times, i.e. Google Earth. It's only short comings that I found are two. The illustrations are far too small to read and are in black and white. I am fairly certain that most can be found online in color and can be zoomed. Larger illustrations in color would likely make the purchase price much higher however. The second thing I found lacking was any in depth discussion of GIS.… (more)



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