by Simon Garfield

The endless fascination of maps comes as much from what they show us as what they don’t, the missing or malformed continents of ancient maps being arguably as compelling as the voyeuristic level of detail accessible today on Google’s Street View.

British author and journalist Simon Garfield’s lively if uneven survey begins in Egypt, with a history of the incunabular maps of Eratosthenes, Strabo and Ptolemy, before moving chronologically through significant cartographic landmarks such as Hereford Cathedral’s metaphysical Mappa Mundi from the 13th century and Mercator’s 1569 world map, the latter being the template for how we still depict the world today. Garfield also looks at the emergence of various map formats including road maps, guidebooks, ordnance surveys, atlases and globes, before arriving in the “me-mapping” digital age of the handheld GPS.

On the MapThe book’s most engaging chapters tend to be those built around controversy. “The Legendary Mountains of Kong” delves into how the latter, a formidable range extending thousands of miles across western Africa, managed to appear on maps for almost a century despite the fact that they didn’t exist. “The Mystery of Vinland” examines the fascinating, enduring debate over the authenticity of the map now housed at Yale University depicting Norse visits to the New World hundreds of years before Columbus.

Though cartography and the geographical discoveries that have informed it are a pervasive theme, overall, On the Map suffers from lack of a clear focus. Even in his introduction Garfield is vague about his ambit, giving us instead grand pronouncements like “maps hold a clue to what makes us human”—a statement so general (after all, what doesn’t?) as to be effectively meaningless.

For someone enamoured of maps, Garfield also has an ironic tendency to run off on tangents. Some of these, such as querying whether there’s any factual basis behind the oft-held belief that women are poor navigators, or a profile of one of the world’s most arrogant map dealers, are reasonably diverting. Whether or not Hollywood mansion tours represent anything meaningful in the evolution of map-making, however, seems more debatable. A chapter on brain mapping is informative but similarly of questionable relevance to Garfield’s (admittedly unclear) purpose. At the same time, given Garfield’s contention that sat nav and digital handheld devices have “transformed mapping more than all the other innovations of cartography’s centuries,” it’s curious how little time is spent on these subjects.

Awkward phrasing and bad grammar are another problem—“As a child we encounter them [treasure maps] in literature”—as is imprecise language. Garfield describes a 2010 map showing the global connections between Facebook members, for example, as “a map of the world made by 500 million cartographers all at once,” though it’s unclear how Facebook members could be considered “cartographers” when the map’s creator was an intern with access to company member data. Even the book’s subtitle, “A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks,” feels slightly misleading.

Having written 13 books covering topics as wide-ranging as wrestling, AIDS, the development of synthetic dyes, the BBC and stamp collecting, Garfield (who’s only 52) comes across as more omnivore than polymath. Though his 2010 book on typography, Just My Type, became a bestseller, some within the field criticized it for terminological sloppiness and factual errors. Like the latter, On the Map is aimed at a broad lay readership, something emphasized by a slightly uncertain foreword written by Dava Sobel, a general science writer who is neither a cartographer nor a geographer. As a rough introduction to a highly expandable topic, On the Map succeeds well enough—especially if, like Garfield, you’re not afraid of occasionally getting lost.