From dragon warnings to smartphone screens

Janet Maslin / New York Times News Service /


Published Dec 23, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

“On the Map: A Mind- Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks” by Simon Garfield (Gotham Books, 464 pgs., $27.50)

Simon Garfield’s past work includes a whole book about the color mauve and last year’s delightful “Just My Type,” an ebullient survey of facts about fonts and typography. Now he turns his attention to a somewhat mustier subject: the history of cartography. He is most engaging on the most checkered parts of that history.

Garfield does not pretend to be a serious historian. (Neither did Ken Jennings, whose 2011 “Maphead” covered some of the same terrain.) His gift is for cherry-picking factoids, and his latest book, “On the Map,” is full of little conversation pieces. But this book is diminished by the way it has been produced, with an alluringly tinted antique map of Africa on its cover and nothing but smudgy gray illustrations inside.

Some of the map depictions are also reduced in scale, which makes their copious text virtually illegible. Too bad: The kinds of stories Garfield loves depend on evocative visual images that his book doesn’t provide.

Should readers be able to conjure maps out of thin air? The first cartographers had to do just that, relying on little information, much intuition and the tactical use of deductive tools like trigonometry. But maps vary so wildly in shape, spirit and subject matter that the desire to lay eyes on them is irresistible. True map aficionados are smitten by their language, too. “Gladly would I go from Grand-Bassam to Tabou along the coast of Cote d’Ivoire,” Garfield writes, “if only to say so out loud.”

Maps aren’t as revelatory here as fonts were in “Just My Type.” Still, this is a fine and fruitful moment for thinking about cartography. There are whole relatively new genres, from the MRI to video-game landscapes to social media-based graphics that depict trending tweets and online conversations.

It could be argued that a ghostly, cobwebby apparition produced by Facebook, generated by Facebook users’ connections, is too different from a map produced by Eratosthenes of Cyrene for the Great Library of Alexandria to coexist in the same book. But Garfield prefers skipping and sampling. His chapters are mere snippets, and his book’s guiding principle is casual fun — to the extent that it even has one.

He does have a penchant for the peculiar. He will tell you not only how Eratosthenes worked but that his flat map of the world made the overall landmass look like an elongated skull. He will sketch the history of watery-bordered maps that imagined the inhabited world as a great island. And he will gladly point out mapmakers’ idiosyncrasies, like the presumptions in Strabo’s “Geographica,” which that Greek geographer began writing in 7 B.C., that Ireland was full of cannibals and Ceylon “produces elephants.” (This book is at its most excitable when maps contain whopping errors or illustrations of bizarrely fanciful nonhuman creatures.)

Subject matter doesn’t get much better for Garfield than the Mappa Mundi, from around 1290, which not only set off a scandal when Hereford Cathedral tried to sell it in 1988 (chapter title: “The Men Who Sold the World”) but also featured phantasmagorical drawings. The Mappa Mundi features a horned, four-legged creature called the Bonacon, “whose method of defense,” according to a British scholar in 1955, “was to discharge its ordure over three acres of ground and set fire to everything within reach.” To its credit, “On the Map” includes a close-up of an embarrassed-looking Bonacon doing exactly that.

Almost any map-related oddity you can imagine is in here somewhere. Garfield questions whether the famed Latin phrase “Hic Sunt Dracones” means “Here Be Dragons” or, less romantically, refers to Dagronian cannibals mentioned by Marco Polo. And how does one determine whether a pre-Columbian document is a forgery? Match its wormholes against a map known to be authentic.

“On the Map” occasionally shows a serious side. Blank spaces on maps, Garfield points out, offer stories of their own. An unnamed piece of Africa may have invited imperialist conquest. Parts of the unexplored American West already had old Native American names, but Native Americans were nowhere to be found. It took Lewis and Clark to put new ones on the map.

The future of maps may be Garfield’s most important concern. We live in a time when maps of fantasy realms, a la Tolkien’s Middle-earth, are more beloved than maps of real places. Inevitably, Garfield arrives at the high-tech juncture where GPS use overshadows the traditional map and maybe even supplants it; while he does his best to give credit to progress, he finds some of it deeply regrettable.

One long, humorous and affectionate chapter is devoted to an especially abrasive dealer in antique maps. Garfield finds this guy’s avaricious but old-school passion more meaningful than any cute tricks your smartphone can do.