‘On the Map’ reflects a grand ambition to map the world

Map of the world generated by Facebook connections.
(Facebook / Gotham Books)

On the Map
A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks

Simon Garfield
Gotham: 464 pp., $27.50


Here’s what I like about maps: They offer a clarity, a shape, to the world. They suggest routes and boundaries, allow us to explore widely, even (or especially) if we don’t leave home. They speak of possibilities, both in terms of places we may visit and those we will never visit, while supporting the comforting illusion that our surroundings are contained. I look at them nearly every day — not just to get to where I’m going but also to look back at where I’ve been.

Given their ubiquity (who hasn’t searched for his or her house on Google Maps or used a smartphone GPS app?), it’s easy to take maps for granted. And yet, Simon Garfield points out in “On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks,” they come with their own history, their own evolution, important not just for fixing our place in the world but also for telling us what that place means.

Take the Mappa Mundi, a 13th century British map, drawn on a “large shank” of cowhide, which uses physical locations — Jerusalem stands at its center — to get at metaphysical considerations, “a map-guide, for a largely illiterate public, to a Christian life.”

As Garfield explains: “The map is frantic — alive with activity and achievement. Once you grow accustomed to it, it is hard to pull yourself away. There are approximately 1,100 place names, figurative drawings and inscriptions, sourced from Biblical, Classical and Christian texts. … Indeed, all history is here, happening at the same time: the Tower of Babel; Noah’s Ark as it comes to rest on dry land; the Golden Fleece; the Labyrinth in Crete where the Minotaur lived. … With its parade of dung-firing animals, dog-headed or bat-eared humans, a winged sphinx with a young woman’s face, it seems closer to Hieronymus Bosch than to the scientific Greek cartographers.” It is, he concludes, “the most arresting freakshow in town.”


“On the Map” aspires to be both a popular history of cartography and a loose meditation on the role of maps in human life. A British journalist and author of more than a dozen works of nonfiction, Garfield is well-suited for the purpose; his last book, “Just My Type,” took a similar approach to fonts.

Beginning with the Great Library of Alexandria, “On the Map” spans more than two millenniums, ending up at Google headquarters, where Garfield shows us something called the Liquid Galaxy, an eight-screened wall on which the whole world is accessible by touchscreen control.


The meeting rooms at Google (or those concerned with mapping) are named for explorers: “Marco Polo, Leif Ericsson, Sir Francis Drake, Ortelius, Vasco da Gama, Vespucci, Magellan, Livingstone, Stanley, Lewis and Clark, Shackleton.” It’s no coincidence that all of them also appear in “On the Map,” for one of Garfield’s points is that Google’s grand ambition — “nothing less than a digital, instantly accessible live atlas of the entire world, something that would show not just the things the old-school atlases showed (major cities, geological facets, coastal contours, comparative data) but every house on every street and every car in every driveway” — has been the ambition of mapmakers and surveyors all along.

That this can be a mixed blessing goes without saying, especially in an era when we often pay more attention to our mapping devices than to the landscapes they help us navigate. “When we’re looking at maps on our dashboard or on phones as we walk,” Garfield points out, “we tend not to look around or up so much. It is now entirely possible to travel many hundreds of miles — to the other side of a country, perhaps, or even a continent — without have the faintest clue about how we got there.”


What Garfield is describing is a domesticating impulse, in which the world is reduced to the size of our screens. That, to be sure, is part of the point of mapping, but what interests him more is how we got to such a place. For Garfield, the history of maps is an epic story, beginning in earnest with Claudius Ptolemy, whose “Geographia,” produced around AD 150, set a standard that held for more than 1300 years.

Ptolemy’s great innovation was the development of a universal system of coordinates, “to be employed and expanded as our knowledge of the world itself grew over the centuries.” The irony is that, in Europe, this didn’t happen, although there were great Asian and Arabic cartographers. It wasn’t until the late 15th century that Western mapmakers caught up, as explorers such as Columbus, Da Gama and John Cabot discovered the limitations of Ptolemy. The result was the world map of Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator, which became a new cartographic standard upon its release in 1569.


All this history is fascinating, and Garfield takes us through it well. About halfway through the book, however, he begins to lose his focus, as history yields to a more scattered set of observations: about cities, the development of tourist and surveyors maps, treasure maps and globes. It’s not that such material isn’t interesting; it is, and when Garfield shifts to the unexpected — games, for instance, from Risk to Grand Theft Auto, that rely on mapping — “On the Map” achieves a fluid breadth.

Yet many of these later chapters read like stand-alones, bits of reportage or essays that connect only tangentially to the larger pattern of the book. A chapter on brain mapping seems disconnected, while another, which juxtaposes a high-end map dealer with a legendary map thief, never really makes its point. It’s as if, in trying to be comprehensive, Garfield can’t help but drift off course, caught in the distractions of his own Mappa Mundi, his grand ambition to map the world.


Perhaps that’s as it should be, for another pleasure of maps is that of getting lost. This, Garfield notes, is harder than it once was, but it’s a worthy effort all the same.

“We may always turn off our phones,” he writes, “fairly safe in the knowledge that maps will still be there when we need them. We are searching souls, and the values we long entrusted in maps as guides and inspirations are still vibrant in the age of the Googleplex.”