Cartographers, like nature, abhor a vacuum and have traditionally filled the empty spaces on maps with large lettering, descriptive passages, drawings and/or certain labels that many of us may be familiar with, such as terra incognita (“unknown land”) or hic sunt dracones (“here be dragons”). However, as Simon Garfield tells us in his breezy romp through the history of cartography, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (Gotham Books, 2012), hic sunt dracones has never actually appeared on a historic map! While illustrations of dragons abound, the phrase may (depending on interpretation and translation) have appeared on a globe once. Facts and stories such as these fill Mr. Garfield’s book.
On the Map ostensibly tells the story of cartography, though it actually does a bit more and a bit less. Approximately 423 pages of material are divided into 22 chapters arranged in loose chronological order that cover the breadth, if not the depth, of cartography. Aside from history and a bit on technique, Mr. Garfield covers seminal maps, GPS, surveying, trailblazing cartographers, internet mapping, expeditions, brain mapping, thematic maps and even similarities and differences in map reading and use between men and women. Every chapter contains a number of black and white illustrations, though as The New York Times notes, some are “smudgy” and much of the text on the maps is illegible.
Reading On the Map was definitely a joy, though at times a bit uneven. Mr. Garfield seems strongest when telling the stories of people, such as the failed Australian expedition of Burke and Wills or the “biggest” map dealer, W. Graham Arader III, “the biggest map dealer in the world (the wealthiest, the most famous, the most combative and bombastic, the most feared, the most loathed).”
Given the range of topics and the fact that not all chapters are equal, I recommend approaching On the Map as a collection of thematically-related essays. Mr. Garfield himself writes that the book “could also be viewed as a journey around an exhibition. … You hold in your hand the catalogue to this show.” The lack of an overarching narrative frees the reader to skip around or skim those chapters they find less interesting.
Overall, Mr. Garfield’s writing is fast, witty and sure, though possibly a bit superficial. This is definitely not an academic survey of cartography, but for “laymen” interested in history, exploration and/or cartography, I think On the Map will make for an interesting read and a great gift. The subject matter, format and writing style make it an ideal read for airplanes and trains, whether traveling proper or just commuting. And, like the best maps, it invites the reader to ultimately leave the book and explore the world it describes.