On the Map by Simon Garfield

8162E-JNUGLNonfiction — print. Gotham, 2012. 464 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks”, Garfield’s book presents the rather fascinating history of cartography in a series of easy-to-digest, short chapters. Following a loose timeline, he focuses on interesting and important aspects of cartography – the library at Alexandria, John Snow’s epidemic map, the marvel that is the map of the London Underground, the controversy behind the Mercator projection – moving the reader from the very first map to the advent of Google Map and GPS units on your mobile phone.

I was quite pleased to see Muhammad al-Idrisi gets a mention as “finest and most modern of all medieval cartographers” in Garfield’s book as his contributions to the field of cartography are largely overlooked. (I’ll give you three guesses as to why.) This mention is indicative of the breadth of Garfield’s book – I learned so much from the book – but also represents the shortness of his analysis.

As someone interested in the cartography of epidemiology and map projections, I would have loved his chapter on the London cholera map to go into far more detail addressing how diseases are mapped today and for his musings on the Mercator projection to consist of more comparisons than just one to the Gall-Peters projection. I’m not all that interested in the Vinland map or the advent of the UK Ordnance Survey, but at least I know a few basic facts on these topics and could continue on to the next chapter rather quickly.

It’s a good introduction to the history of cartography, but the whole book is a rather mix bag in terms of how much attention he gives to each topic. He typically devotes a few sentences to a topic without much explanation before moving on to the next topic, which makes some of the less interesting topics are little more bearable to get through.

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