A History of the World in Twelve Maps, by Jerry Brotton, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 544 pages
On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does, by Simon Garfield, Profile, RRP£16.99, 468 pages
When Apple released its latest operating system in September, there was a great deal of consternation among users of iPhones and iPads. The company had replaced the much-loved Google Maps application with its own (inferior) version. Over the following days, there were reports of mistakes (the Sears Tower in Chicago was misplaced; a farm outside Dublin was designated as an airport) – but what really riled users was how this change subtly altered the way they engaged with the world around them.
Unwittingly, Apple had proved a point made by both Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in Twelve Maps and Simon Garfield’s On The Map. As Brotton writes, “maps provide answers to many more questions than simply how to get from one place to another”. They have played an important role in our understanding of who we are – as individuals and as cultures – for more than two millennia.
Brotton, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, has selected 12 maps that stretch from Ptolemy in AD150 to Google in 2012, including along the way al-Idrisi’s The Book of Roger (1154), the 14th-century mappamundi, Martin Waldsee- müller’s beautiful world map of 1507 and Gerard Mercator’s projection of 1569. Each either “shaped people’s attitudes to the worlds in which they lived, or crystallised a particular world view at specific moments in global history – often both”.
It is perhaps unfortunate that Brotton’s book appears to owe a debt to A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010) by British Museum director Neil MacGregor – though Brotton points out in his acknowledgments that his own title was agreed back in 2006. In case you didn’t get the point that he’s Columbus to MacGregor’s Amerigo Vespucci, he adds that the idea is “the culmination of nearly 20 years of thinking about and publishing on maps”. So there.
Whoever got there first, the structure does make for engrossing reading. Each map is merely a starting point for an academic, often philosophical examination of the culture that produced it and the world view that it represents.
No map is objective, says Brotton. In the early 1140s, for example, King Roger II of Sicily commissioned his close confidant al-Idrisi to produce a map that promoted his own political position ruling over a crossroads of Mediterranean cultures.
The “Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World”, or the The Book of Roger, as it became known, was finished in 1154 and consisted of 70 regional maps that drew on Christian, Greek and Islamic traditions. What it offers is a snapshot of a moment in history when there was an uneasy exchange of ideas and knowledge between broadly Christian and Muslim traditions; in the centuries that followed, cartographers would focus increasingly on religious and cultural divides at the expense of pure topography.
In his final chapter on Google, Brotton sails off the edge of the world like a 15th-century explorer, suggesting that the information age has blended the physical and the virtual to such an extent that Google Earth and similar applications are actually shaping our reality and the way we organise our society.
Simon Garfield, a journalist, is all about stories. In previous books such as Our Hidden Lives, his collection of diaries from the Mass Observation project, or Just My Type, in which he explored the stories behind fonts, Garfield has demonstrated a keen eye for a decent tale and the ability to tell it.
On The Map, like Brotton’s book, is lavishly illustrated and covers much of the same ground, though with a lighter, more populist touch and a more inclusive definition of a map. Garfield also dots his text with short stories and asides – what he calls his Pocket Maps – that make for amusing and illuminating reading.
Garfield tells the story of Dr John Snow, who located the cause of a cholera outbreak in London by mapping the disease; he explodes the myth of “Here be Dragons” (“The phrase ‘Here Be Dragons’ has never actually appeared on a historic map”); and explores why California was marked as an island on maps for decades despite the fact that those who tried to sail around it failed. This latter tale he describes as “the 17th-century’s forerunner to a mistake on Wikipedia – doomed to be repeated in a thousand school essays until a bright spark noticed it and dared to make amends.”
Through Garfield’s book, maps are revealed as hopeful documents that record what map-makers want to be there. Both Brotton and Garfield, by tackling the same material in their different ways, have charted a course through centuries of map-making that shows maps not as cold, rigorous fact-based plans of our environment, but as projections of how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen.