I’d heard Simon Garfield interviewed about his new book and knew I would love it, and it came in with a stack of other “holds” the Thursday before the blizzard. But I’ve been so busy it’s been hard to finish On the Map: a Mind Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks. This is not a book to pick up and set down in short intervals. It’s better absorbed at least one rich chapter at a time, if possible.
I’ve always loved maps and geography. I thoroughly enjoyed geography class in junior high, and looking at globes and atlases as a child. When my children were young we had a series of map place mats and puzzles, played geography games on the computer, and conducted a family “country of the month” club, where we took turns choosing a country, checked out stacks of books about it, ordered maps from tourist bureaus, read folktales, listened to music, learned a few phrases, etc. and wrapped up with a meal featuring foods from our chosen country. And on family trips I introduced them to old school AAA “TripTiks,” each flip map trip route plotted especially for us at the AAA office, with the journey unfolding page by page as the miles melt away.
My son learned to travel by map every summer for the handful of years we lived in deep southern Georgia. I’d order fresh new regional maps and we’d highlight a route according to our stops along the way. We’d set off early, the summer sky just brightening, dotted with a few lingering stars, the trees dark silhouettes, all three of us (the kids and I — the Computer Scientist didn’t usually get enough time off to road trip) nearly sick with nervous excitement, the car fully kitted out with snacks, caffeine for me, travel games, audio books and music to help us pass the time. Odds Bodkin and Jim Weiss, and later Bill Bryson, kept us company on the way.
My son would follow the route I’d marked, navigating and urging we go farther before stopping (he was always anxious to get wherever we were going). We’d stop to visit family along the way and end up back in New Hampshire, where I would never fail to point out the gorgeous boulders to my eye-rolling offspring as we drove along Rt. 9 past Keene in a particularly scenic stretch where the road follows a brook. And at the end of the visit we’d head back again, the familiar exits and landmarks leading us home as my son followed along on our maps.
My daughter likes maps too but is far more familiar with GPS. (An aside: she is the subject of one amazing map story in our family’s lore. When she was 2, she was sitting in her booster seat looking out the kitchen window and said in the matter-of-fact way of children, “Look Mommy, France.” She was pointing to a cloud, and it did indeed look like France, which was in front of her on a place mat world map!)
Garfield explains towards the end of his book that by 2005, GPS had taken off, becoming the routing method of choice for people traveling by car. My daughter knows I find GPS frustrating – it’s disconcerting to look at the little screen diagram and also at the road for one thing, and I like seeing the whole route, not just the next step. I almost always print out directions and ask her to refer to them as we go. So she’s learned, in her formative years, to navigate via Google Maps directions, and to follow along on a moving digital map with us at the center.
On the Map begins and ends by examining this current state of mapping affairs: we are the center of our own maps, as GPS devices and smartphones and apps focus on our current location. He traces this unquenchable human longing to place ourselves in the context of our world from the earliest maps traced on a stone tablet through the imaginary but incredibly detailed maps of Skyrim and even more mind boggling, maps of our own brains. He covers maps’ role in geopolitical, economic, social and cultural history, and their influence on everything from exploration to social justice.
I loved every bit of it. It’s a very pleasingly designed book, smaller than most hardcovers and stout. Every chapter is filled with illustrations and many have small sections Garfield calls “pocket maps” that offer tantalizing detours from his main narrative. From mapping Mars to the history of guidebooks, from Churchill’s map room to famous map thieves, from blank spaces and invented mountain ranges to iconic maps real and imagined (the London Tube, the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter), Garfield packs every page with fascinating people and stories. One of my favorites concerned the use of specially modified Monopoly games as escape kits sent to WWII prison camps; the boards hid clues, silk maps were sandwiched between the cardboard layers and the game pieces included a compass.
When I had time to sit down and really savor his erudite but thoroughly readable prose, I really enjoyed it. If I had just a few minutes to read, I wished for more. If all history were this palatable no student would ever find it drudgery. Garfield presents the entire course of humanity’s rise from caves to space in the story of maps. I’m going to have to add his other books to my lengthy “to-read” list.
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