On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does, By Simon Garfield


Apple recently found to its cost just how much maps mean to us when it replaced the Google maps on iPhones with its own handiwork. It was not a success. Railway stations were labelled as parks, parks became airports, Woolworths stores were resurrected. Wolverhampton disappeared entirely. Apple fans overreacted floridly, but not just because maps are handy for finding the nearest petrol station. It's more primal. They tell us how we see ourselves, how we used to see ourselves, and the journey from A to B. Simon Garfield's new book is a rollicking sweep through map history, packed with curiosities and written with verve.

En route we encounter the sell-off scandal over Hereford's Mappa Mundi; Dr John Snow, who mapped London's Soho to establish the cause of cholera; fictitious islands that endured on maps for hundreds of years; the lure of treasure maps. That "imperialist" straw man, the Mercator projection, is rehabilitated, or at least put in context. It's only one of "so many possible projections", Garfield writes, "each with their own particular political agenda and limitations". Yes, Greenland is grotesquely distended, but try plotting a course across the Atlantic with the politically correct Peters projection.

Some maps could even get you killed. Elizabeth I decreed that the route of Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world (and its untapped riches) remain secret – and it was nine years before a brave cartographer made a map of the journey, struck as a silver medallion. In 2010, Nicaragua "accidentally' invaded Costa Rica, blaming Google maps for drawing the border in the wrong place. Nicaragua has previous on this. In his excellent Strange Maps blog, Frank Jacobs recounts how, in 1937, a Nicaraguan postage stamp almost caused a war when it showed a map "accidentally" claiming a chunk of Honduras.

With the advance of satnav and smartphones, physical maps can seem cumbersome and archaic. Jerry Brotton, the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps, embraces the change, arguing that a fetish for paper maps is for "elite middle-classes". But I agree with Garfield that it isn't all progress: that with electronic maps you lose the inquisitiveness to look around and engage with the world, and instead perceive the world to be revolving around you, the blue dot on a screen. As Garfield says, it gives a sense of invulnerability that encourages "the map-less clowns who yomp up Ben Nevis at teatime with a fading single bar on their iPhones".

On the Map will inspire you to take a trip to somewhere new, buy an antique globe to chart the rise and fall of empires, or just dig out a tatty orange Ordnance Survey Explorer map and let its filigree of contour lines evoke a long-forgotten walk in the rain. Maps, says Garfield, are "not defined certainty, but the opposite – the mystery, and the life-enhancing possibility of discovery". It's such generosity of spirit that makes this a great book.