Nowadays we take maps for granted; they’re an everyday part of life and something that most of us have grown up with without giving too much thought to. We use maps all the time without really thinking about it; when we use a satnav to get from A to B, when we check a weather app that uses GPS to find our current location, when we’re trying to work out how to get from Charing Cross to South Kensington on the tube. It wasn’t always this way however; in his book On The Map, Simon Garfield takes us on a tour through world history charting the way in which maps have evolved over time and what they can tell us about the way the world has changed with them.
From the ancient Greeks to Robert Louis Stevenson, from Mrs P and her A-Z of London to J.M. Barrie’s advice for dealing with ‘pocket’ maps (including “Don’t blame your wife”!), Garfield walks us through centuries of cartography, picking out along the way threads of stories and nuggets of information that help us to see both the way in which our use of maps has changed as well as the way in which we see the very world around us. It’s easy to assume that maps have always been used in the same way, but here we see the way in which maps have over time been used to tell stories, to educate, to prevent the spread of disease, to make political or religious statements…or simply to show what an area looks like.
Not only is this a fascinating look at some truly astonishing works of cartographic art, it’s also a whistlestop tour of world history, providing an eye-opening look at people, places and their interactions. We see how California was mistakenly shown as an island for over 200 years, how Africa developed a continent-spanning range of mountains (the wonderfully-named Mountains of Kong) that blocked explorers until someone actually checked and realised they weren’t there, and how America ended up named after the wrong person. Manageable and easily-understood, full of delightful stories and interesting facts (for instance the verb ‘to orient’ coming from east being at the top of the compass on old maps), this is the kind of book that can be devoured in short notice or dipped into over time, and leaves the reader feeling both better-educated and hankering for more.