As Simon Garfield attests in his latest book, maps can teach us about much more than physical location.


In the captivating and meticulously researched new book On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (Gotham, $28), author Simon Garfield explores our long history with making, using, loving, collecting and reinventing maps. “When we gaze at a map — any map, in any format, from any era — we still find nothing so much as history and ourselves,” writes Garfield, whose last work was 2011’s Just My Type: A Book About Fonts.

Of course, to draw a map is to draw a physical line around our perception of the world. As Garfield details, on the famous Mappa Mundi, created around 1290, that meant that unicorns and “dog-headed or bat-eared humans” shared space on the map with the rivers and cities known to medieval cartographers. On the Andrea Bianco map, which originated in 1436, the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa are joined together and surrounded on all sides by water.

Garfield has much to offer on the ancient art of mapmaking (with beautiful illustrations throughout), but his exploration goes far beyond our earliest understanding of the world. He enters Winston Churchill’s Map Room and explores the maps of our imaginations, including the fictional “Marauder’s Map” from the Harry Potter series. There are maps of Einstein’s brain; treasure maps; maps of Antarctic exploration; maps of cholera outbreaks; a look into how gender plays a role in our use of maps and perception of space; a profile of one of the world’s most famous map thieves, Edward Smiley; and more.

Of course, no book about maps would be complete without discussion of satellite navigation, Google Maps and our ever-increasing reliance on GPS. Garfield notes the amazing good that can come of such technology (like Ushahidi, a platform that tracks human-rights work and crisis response), but he is not yet willing to completely abandon paper maps for a TomTom device. He tells the cautionary tale of Robert Ziegler, who obediently followed his GPS device’s advice and drove his van up a narrow track meant only for mountain goats. He had to be rescued by helicopter.
“When we’re looking at maps on our dashboard or on our phones as we walk, we tend not to look around or up so much,” Garfield warns. “It is now entirely possible to travel many hundreds of miles … without having the faintest clue about how we got there.”