These days it’s easy to buy into the concept of the narcissistic map: A GPS-enabled dot follows you around and tells you where to go.
But before the age of Garmin and Google Earth, there were those ghastly (and yet remarkably satisfying) foldout monstrosities. And before that? Atlases. Globes. Faded parchments etched with recommended pilgrimage routes.
This vast history of mapping is the subject of Simon Garfield's fascinating new book, On the Map, which explores the way we’ve charted the world from antiquity through the modern age.
Garfield begins with those impressively astute Greek mathematicians (who pretty accurately gauged the earth’s diameter) before moving through 10th-century Norse exploration (did the Vikings actually “discover” America?), 18th-century cartographic bloopers (the Kong Mountains: total fiction) and modern-day attempts to map the brain and discern how map reading affects intelligence.
The book’s stories and factoids are pure fun: Think 17th-century cartographers’ insistence that California was an island, the map that stopped cholera and the reason that women are actually quite good at reading directions. But it’s the history of maps as a history of the world itself that truly compels.
You may even find yourself willing to turn off your GPS and get a little lost.