The fight for mapping supremacy between two tech giants blew up this fall when Apple, in revising its mobile operating system, dumped the Google Maps app overboard. To Google’s delight, no doubt, Apple’s own maps app wobbled badly out of the gate, and amid a consumer outcry, a public apology and quiet firings, all of us caught a glimpse of just how high the stakes are in today’s mapping game.
But according to Simon Garfield’s delightfully meandering new book, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, this is nothing new. Maps, Garfield proposes, are once again what they were in “the age of the Spanish conquistadors — guarded, proprietary and inestimably valuable as routes to further riches.”
On the Map delivers a loose narrative of cartographic history, but this book is better read as a collection of marvelous anecdotes that explore the role maps have played in shaping human culture since ancient times.
The author tells us, for example, how east was often placed at the top of Medieval maps, a placement known as “orientation,” and how the term “guidebook” was popularized by Lord Byron in his comic epic Don Juan. We learn that the first jigsaw puzzle was a map, and that a small pellet of lime, when burned with an oxy-hydrogen flame, produces a light bright enough for surveyors to see at a distance, even in foul weather. “And in this way,” Garfield writes, “did ‘limelight’ enter the vocabulary.”
Maps, the book reminds us, do more than help us get around. For example, the gorgeous Mappa Mundi of Hereford, England, is a 13th century “map-guide, for a largely illiterate public, to a Christian life.” Sixteenth-century Venetians used maps to project “a solid and irrefutable display of governance and fiscal strength.” And when Dr. John Snow used a map to track cholera deaths in 1854 London, he was able to determine that the source of the epidemic was not the city’s air but its water, saving countless lives.
Garfield betrays a longing throughout On the Map for the bygone days of ragged, impossible-to-fold paper maps, but he’s no Luddite. His descriptions of complex mapping technology and classic mapping problems are simple and clear. For example, if you want to feel Gerardus Mercator’s pain (how do you accurately represent a sphere on a flat surface?), “take a nice furry tennis ball, draw a few shapes representing countries on it and slice it in two,” Garfield writes. “Then make some more nicks on the cut sides and flatten it out.”
The author also dispels several myths. Pythagoras, he reminds us, argued the world was round well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And that old notion about women not being able to read maps as well as men? Not true, Garfield says: Women process maps differently from men, but not worse. The problem is that most maps have been made by men for male eyes.
“They look down. But when we walk we tend to look up and around. The flat, two-dimensional, look-down approach is suited to cognitive strategies used by men, but it is one that generally puts women at a disadvantage.”
Garfield explains that while blank spaces on a map were a cartographer’s worst enemy, they were prime destinations for the explorers who sought to fill them in. But when Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery “recorded their daily findings it was with a tinge of disappointment, as if the truth of their voyage was dismantling one of the great American dreams.”
That epic journey may have been the last time man stood face to face with something that measured up to his dreams. But for Garfield, maps continue to call us in a similar way. “It is one of the most appealing features of large maps, and world maps in particular,” he writes, “that all journeys are feasible. On the Hereford map, everywhere except Paradise seems reachable in sturdy vessels, and even the fiercest beasts look biddable.”