On the MapOn the Map
by Simon Garfield

So there I am in sixth grade. We each receive a paperback work-book entitled “Maps and Globes”. First exercise, draw a map of the classroom we are sitting in. Second exercise, a map of our bedroom at home. Next, a map of our house, surrounding yard, with trees and other landmarks. Then we move on to a map of the route we take walking to school, with streets named and significant sights we pass along the way plotted as accurately as we can manage. And so forth, for several weeks, until we have passed on to the big picture, to mercator and azimuthal projections, the world as seen from space. Just a few years earlier, within easy memory even of my generation’s short span of life, we had seen for the first time in human experience the image of the “big blue marble” as the astronauts viewed us from the moon, such an incredible and beautiful picture. I don’t know how the rest of the class felt about this geographical foray. Maybe a lot of them were glad when we finished that workbook and got back to long division and punctuation. But I was sorry when we closed that book for the last time, and I’ve been hooked on maps ever since.

There was a woods near the river where my sisters and I used to play. I spent one summer happily mapping the trails, locating sumac thickets and clay bluffs and meadows of Queen Anne’s lace, devising names for each place and drawing symbols and legends, finally showcasing the map as the double-page center of a home-made Guidebook. There were Girl Scout campsites which I mapped in colorful detail to edify the folks when I returned home. When I read stories set in imaginary places, I drew maps of what I read. Sometimes I made up maps of places I never met in a book, just for the fun of playing with coastlines and roads and rivers. As an adult, I’ve had roadmaps in my glove compartment ever since I began driving, giving me a mental picture of the city as I’ve learned my way around it. During recent adventures delivering Meals on Wheels and working as a pizza delivery driver, the map was my most necessary piece of equipment. Other pizza delivery drivers owned GPS devices from which they sometimes tried reading me directions to an unfamiliar location. But when I got to my own car, I had to pull out the map. I needed to picture the whole layout, to see all the relative spaces from a birds-eye view, instead of just blindly following a set of mystery commands.

If anyone asked me to explain what it is that I love about maps, I’d have a hard time coming up with words. In On the Map, the author is writing for people like me, folks who just love maps and want to tell stories about them. Here is a bookful of good stories.

There are two lovely interlocking stories about a 13th-century map hanging in an English cathedral — one about the pilgrims who looked at it when it was made, one about the modern hornet’s-nest that resulted when the cathedral tried to sell it. There’s the story of a sketched map showing Vinland of the 11th century Vikings, a map unexpectedly appended to 14th-century copy of a 12th century travelogue, and the anxious flurry as experts agonized over whether it was genuine. There’s the story of tourists with their pocket-sized guidebooks full of pocket-sized maps, Victorian English with their Baedeckers and postwar Americans with Frommer’s $5 Guides. There are stories of giant globes and of beautifully abstract multicolored subway lines and stories of gerrymandered political boundary maps. There’s J. M. Barrie’s entertaining rant about the impossibility of ever re-folding an unfolded map. There are stories of Lewis and Clark carrying pens and ink across a continent to map the way there and back again, and stories of Antarctic explorers freezing off their fingers to sketch maps of the worst journey in the world.

There are maps that charted the course of wars, from Churchill’s map room to the commonplace Michelin road maps handed out to soldiers landing in Normandy. There are maps of places that never existed, such as the entirely fictional “Mountains of Kong” which sent dozens of stubborn explorers roaming round the southern Sahara for several decades. There are maps of places that existed as yet only in the dreams of the future, such as the grid of Manhattan streets already confidently plotted out in the wilderness of 1811. There are maps to the world of the imagination, to Treasure Island and to Hogwarts. There are maps to chart the way through treacherous valleys of death, such as the “ghost map” which led a doctor to the source of a cholera epidemic. There are maps of canals on the planet Mars and maps of the neural highways inside the human brain.

This book is over 400 pages long, yet it seemed to fly along speedily when I read it. All the fascinating stories carried me along, keeping me turning the pages, while the information about maps was so absorbed into the storytelling that it never dragged. Okay, admittedly I’m a maphead; perhaps for a reader who isn’t really into maps, this book could drag a bit, now and then. I must admit that I shook my head in bafflement myself at one point, while reading the chapter discussing why women don’t understand or appreciate maps as men do. Who says we don’t? All I know is, whenever we take a road trip, Brian drives, I navigate, and both of us are content with what we’re doing.