Maps don’t just get us where we’re going. They also show us where we’ve been. In his new book On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, bestselling author Simon Garfield examines history through the stories behind some of the most important—and also some of the worst—maps ever charted. In this Zola Q&A, Garfield discusses why California spent years depicted as an island, the challenges of mapping in the digital age, and which maps absolutely must be seen in person.
Zola: What made you decide to write a book about maps?
Simon Garfield: I’ve been fascinated by maps since I was a kid going to school on the London Underground. My journey was only one stop, but I kept gazing at that famous map in the carriage and all the exotic names I never thought I’d visit (and I still haven’t been to many of them). After that I got hooked on the beauty of maps, and the possibilities they hold to tell great stories.
Zola: With so many maps out there, how did you choose which ones you would write about?
SG: It was a tough choice, and the book could have been at least twice as long. There were a few things I had to cover—the beginning of mapping as a science in ancient Greece and digital maps—but beyond that I had free range. I wanted to write about some important maps (the Lewis and Clark trip, the journey to the South Pole) but also some more obscure ones—including those in films and computer games. In the end I chose the ones with the best human stories attached to them.
Zola: You write that the imaginary Kong Mountain Range was featured in maps of Africa for more than a hundred years, and that California was depicted as an island even after navigators knew that it was connected to mainland. How did cartographers and explorers get away with these kinds of mistakes—or frauds—for so long? When did it end?
SG: I’m not sure errors on maps have come to an end, and perhaps we should be grateful for that: mistakes help us discover new things. But the Kong and California errors are remarkable, not only in their scale but also in their longevity. This was the case for two reasons: once something is on the map it is very hard to dispute it (unless one personally travels to the region in question, which in previous centuries we tended to do far less). And the other reason is that maps feed on other maps, and mistakes get repeated like bad Wikipedia entries. Maps have always carried an authority that they usually shouldn’t possess—after all, most are drawn by one person, and everyone makes mistakes, deliberately or otherwise.
Zola: Which maps should every enthusiast see in person at least once?
SG: I think the wonderfully impressive 1507 Waldseemuller map at the Library of Congress, the first to mention America, is an extraordinary artifact and beautifully presented. And if you can get to see a few pages from the 17th-century Blaeu atlas, printed in Amsterdam, then you’re in for a visual feast.
Zola: The days of physical maps may be coming to an end, and a generation that has never used one is on the rise. People’s experience with maps is becoming limited to GPS/iPhone depictions that cater only to the user’s own specific tastes and whims. Is there any upside to this?
SG: Digital mapping can be so useful, and is now an integral part of our world. I write in the book that if the satellites failed it would be like running out of oil, gas and electricity all at once. I have a GPS device in my car, and it’s certainly safer than trying to read a map, and often more up to date. But of course you shouldn’t trust it absolutely, and the same with maps on our phones. They can help us in specific situations, but I still like to carry a folding map where possible. But it would be a great shame if the advent of digital mapping meant that map-reading was no longer taught properly in schools, and we no longer looked up or down or beyond, but only at these little glass boxes.
Zola: You write about the importance of maps in Treasure Island and Harry Potter. What other books rely heavily on cartography?
SG: So many kids’ books rely on maps—real or imagined—to help us explore imaginary worlds. The J.R.R. Tolkien books, of course, but also other classics like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and even Winnie the Pooh. More modern books also, and much fantasy and science fiction. The good news is these kinds of books with maps will transfer excitingly to the iPad and other devices.
Zola: What will the cartographers of the future be mapping?
SG: The same things we map now: human history. Maps will become far more specific and detailed, and we’ll all be able to contribute more.
This article was updated on September 29, 2014