The Mapmakers // by John Noble Wilford

//published 1981//revised 2000//

I love maps.  Let’s just get that out of the way to start.  I mean I genuinely love them.  I’m a very visual learner, so I think maps have always been a way for me to make sense of things.  Back in high school, my best friend and I would often spend an evening planing an intricate and involved roadtrip that we had zero intentions of taking.  We would get out the road atlas and various state maps (this was before Google Maps was really a thing because I’m old) and spread them out all over the table.  We would use those charts in the front of the atlas that give you distances between cities to help figure out how long it would take us to drive from place to place.  We would make notes of interesting places along the way where we would like to stop.  We would discuss the merits of various cars within our families and determine how much gas would cost for each one to accomplish the miles we had outlined.

And now that I’m an adult, I still love maps and I still love planning trips I’m probably not taking.  And even though we have a GPS and all that, you had better believe that I bright along paper maps every time we go on a trip!  I also collect maps in a haphazard kind of way.  I finally purchased a map of Great Britain a couple of years ago to help me with all the reading I do that is set in that country.  (I mean, someone says they are going to have to go from Bath to Brighton… I have no idea if that’s five miles or fifty or five hundred.)  We have a 4’x6′ map of the country hanging in our bedroom, and the husband and I honestly look at it all the time, discussing possibilities.  Recently, in an antique store, I found myself purchasing a 1950’s road atlas – printed before the interstates.  It’s a fascinating look at how people used to drive this country in the old Route 66 days.

All that to say, I was excited to pick up The Mapmakers.  The history of maps and the people who created them?  Sounds fantastic!  And while this book did somewhat deliver, it was still a bit of a mixed bag.

Basically, Wilford starts at the beginning of time and works forward from there.  It’s a lot of distance to cover, and this book was incredibly dense.  It’s 473 pages of incredibly tiny print, and it felt like I was reading this book forever.  Every time I looked at my little stack of books, this one was on top because it was always this book’s turn to read!  Personally, I think this book would have benefited from less time spent at the beginning of humanity and more time spent on modern innovations, as the earlier section of the book was definitely where it dragged the most.

The first few chapters cover the foundations of mapmaking and maps as a concept, back in the Greek and Roman days when men of Science abounded.  This is interesting, especially to realize just how long ago humanity was interested in things like measuring the earth.  However, Wilford then spends an inordinate amount of time in the Middle Ages (26 pages, which felt even longer) basically explaining how nothing happened in the world of cartography because Christians were in charge of everything, and Christians hate science, so Christians just made up stuff, and Christians ignored all the scientific progress made in earlier generations, and Christians believed the world was flat, and Christians couldn’t handle anything that wasn’t written down in Scriptures, so Christians made sure that no one else was allowed to study science either.  And if that paragraph sounds a little miffy, it’s because the whole chapter was quite offensive.  It just felt like (a) this chapter was excessive in length for the minimal amount of information gained (considering the chapter on mapping the entire moon is actually eight pages shorter than this one), and (b) Wilford went out of his way to find individuals on the fringes, presented their theories in detail, and then would wrap up with a sentence like, “While few medieval thinkers subscribed to this concept…”  If only a few subscribed to this concept, why did you just spend three pages describing it??  Oh, that’s right, it’s so you could spend those three pages mentioning Christians, Scripture, and complete lack of science all combined.  Whatever.

I think the reason it really annoyed me was because one of the things he literally mocked the medieval mapmakers for was how if there was an area on a map where they didn’t know what was there, they would just make something up so there wouldn’t be a blank space.  But then over the next few chapters as he discussed world exploration and the gradual filling in of the world map, he would talk about how things like a giant southern continent were drawn into maps as facts, as well as islands and all sorts of things that weren’t actually there; people would just make up what they believed was true and put it in.  So… if you’re religious and you do it, you get put in a chapter titled “myth and dogma” because you’re too stupid to use real science to figure things out.  But if you’re a scientist and you do it, it’s a “logical error,” even if it persists for decades.  Hmm.

ANYWAY sorry that turned a lot rantier than I was intending.  Once I struggled through the first hundred pages or so, the book turned a corner and got much more interesting (basically, when Wilford started focusing on maps instead of making snide remarks about religion).  The problem is that there was just sooo much to cover!  Wilford considers mapmaking to be a pretty broad concept.  I was really intrigued by things like setting up time zones, for instance – when did that happen?  How much of it was political?  I mean, this is a huge, international thing and it was really interesting to see how it all came together.

There were multiple events that felt like they could be an entire book all by themselves.  For instance, talking about early efforts to map the Amazonian jungle – people had to go out ahead and set up stations because they were triangulating distances by broadcasting signals from the stations to be picked up by aircraft flying overhead.  I mean – what an adventure!  Some of these guys had to pack in all of their supplies by mule and then just hang out there.  I would love to know more about that!

Or the survey parties that worked on mapping the country in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Originally they were sent out on brief, specific tasks as funding allowed.  When FDR decided we should spend pretend money instead of only spending real money, they sent out a semi-permanent caravan that traveled from place to place, mapping as they went.  This meant that the whole expedition now included wives and children, all living in trailers, spending three to six months on average somewhere before packing up and moving to the next project.  How intriguing is that?!

This book was originally published in 1981.  This edition was revised in 2000, because so much mapping technology changed in those twenty years.  The later chapters on GPS, satellites, extraterrestrial mapping, etc. were extremely interesting.  This book could really use yet another revision, as we’ve had another almost twenty years go by, and mapping technology has gone through yet another incredible series of updates.  At the time of Wilford’s initial revision, for instance, cell phones were just beginning to emerge – since then, basically everyone now carries around their own personal GPS unit, tracking their every move, allowing more and more maps to be created concerning human activity.

All in all, a 4/5 for The Mapmakers.  It definitely felt like Wilford could have skimmed over sections where he did nothing but complain about how the Christians prevented progress, and spent a little more time in places where progress was being made.  (E.g., the Jesuit priests, who created detailed and fairly accurate maps of South America in the 1700’s are blown off in one sentence…)  This book would also really benefit from some color pictures – the black and white images come through as rather blurry and not particularly useful.  This is a book about maps, it having some pictures of maps would really help explain a lot of Wilford’s jargon.

Still, if you like maps and history books about random things, this was an interesting, if rather slow, read.  Recommended.