Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Review: On The Map: Why the World Looks the Way It Does by Simon Garfield

On The Map book cover Simon Garfield UK
I bought On The Map from King's Cross Station on a whim last year. You know when you're convinced that your Kindle is going to die so you need to buy a book (genuinely need, for a change) right there and then so you're not left book-less for a two hour train journey? Oh, just me then. But apparently Kindles are way hardier than I ever gave them credit for, because On The Map ended up languishing on the shelf at home until... well, now.

Summary: Maps fascinate us. They chart our understanding of the world and they log our progress, but above all they tell our stories. From the early sketches of philosophers and explorers through to Google Maps and beyond, Simon Garfield examines how maps both relate and realign our history. His compelling narratives range from the quest to create the perfect globe to the challenges of mapping Africa and Antarctica, from spellbinding treasure maps to the naming of America, from Ordnance Survey to the mapping of Monopoly and Skyrim, and from rare map dealers to cartographic frauds. 

En route, there are 'pocket map' tales on dragons and undergrounds, a nineteenth century murder map, the research conducted on the different ways that men and women approach a map, and an explanation of the curious long-term cartographic role played by animals. On The Map is a witty and irrepressible examination of where we've been, how we got there and where we're going.

I loved this book - by the second chapter I wanted to devour every snippet of map-related knowledge it could teach me. And there are a lot of those snippets, by the way. It covers everything from cholera to GPS to the Polar Expeditions, with a great deal in between, in an accessible and friendly manner. At one point I was so engrossed I almost missed my train stop and had to hurtle to the doors with half-open book still in hand!

It's very, very comprehensive, which is a good thing, but it does occasionally result in some chapters being more interesting than others. For example, I loved learning about how disease maps have led to cures, but I really wasn't interested in the spread of guidebooks for travel destinations. 

It's set out more or less chronologically, starting with Alexander the Great founding the Library of Alexandria in 330BC and ending with the GPS-type stuff of the modern age. It includes all kinds of modern references, including the Marauders Map (if I have to explain that, you're on the wrong blog) and the 2011 Muppets Movie, which pleased me no end. It doesn't always follow the timeline though, which is a bit odd. For example it jumps straight from the creation of the London Underground map to travel books in the 1800s. I mean, I don't mind, it's just a little confusing.

The topics get more irrelevant towards the end and therefore the chapters also get shorter. Subjects like maps of movie stars' homes and the Indiana Jones-style moving diagram maps probably don't deserve an entire chapter to themselves. I really do give Mr. Garfield credit for being as thorough as possible, but I did feel like it was dragged out a little.

The writing style is actually kind of perfect, however. It's casual and accessible, but not dumbed down. It's a perfect balance - you don't need any prior geographical knowledge, but the author doesn't get the hand-puppets out to explain it either. It's not easy to read, exactly - you do need to pay attention. There are lots of names (often Greek and similar), facts, figures and dates so you can't half-arse it or you'll end up skimming and not taking anything in.

It is worth it, however. I learned so much about a wide variety of topics and actually ended up liking and respecting Mr Garfield a great deal, which is rare when I read non-fiction. On The Map has taken pride of place on my non-fiction shelf and I'm looking forward to reading it again in the future. It's a comprehensive yet accessible look at how we came to be where we are.

Visit Simon Garfield here.  


  1. This sounds really interesting! I have such a hit and miss experience with non-fiction books like this, usually because I buy them indiscriminately when waiting for a friend or a bus, but this one actually sounds like a winner. I'm not sure about the celebrity maps section (although I guess I can see why it's included) but any book that references the marauders map deserves a read!

  2. Sounds fantastic! I love good non-fiction, especially when it can discuss fictional things as well, like the Marauder's Map. Super cool, adding to my look-for-at-the-library list now!

  3. What a neat book! I've always wondered how exactly how surveyors mapped out things without a computer or google, so I'll have to add this to my list!

  4. Ooo I have this somewhere on the TBR. I think I also want to read his book about fonts (that makes me sound like an uber geek).

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