A History of the World in Twelve Maps

A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton was a chunky read of densely packed text. It took me three and a half weeks to get through its 486 pages. No wide margins and gaping spaces between the lines here; Brotton presented his pages as solid bricks of text with minimal paragraphs. I have read longer books for sure, yet History nonetheless was a daunting book to pick up without knowing in advance what I was getting in for. As I am steadfast in my conviction to finish every book I crack open, I wondered how long this particular book would take me to read if I ended up hating it. The time I took to finish it–three and a half weeks–is not a testament to any sluggish pace or dreary subject matter. Brotton packed his book with such rich information about cartographic history, providing backstories and frequent tangents that weren’t in danger of meandering far off-topic.

Maps were analyzed in chronological order, starting with Ptolemy and ending with Google Earth. The chapter titles were vague and reminded me of New Order song titles. Brotton supplemented his work with two colour inserts showing all the maps he wrote about, and many more. He also included black-and-white maps within the text. I was never at a loss wondering what he was discussing, and he did get very detailed at times in his cartographic analysis. It was a shame that the spine of the book obscured so much information in the two-page spread of the Joan Blaeu map of 1648. I learned more than I could ever dream about the history of maps, and while I did know that early maps were not always oriented with the north on top (al-Idrīsī’s the Entertainment from 1154 was oriented with the south on top, The Hereford mappamundi from c. 1300 with the east and van Berckenrode’s 1620 map of Holland and Friesland had the west on top) I didn’t know–at length–why this was so.

The first mapmakers found how hard it was to render the curved surface of the Earth onto a flat surface and maintain accuracy without distortion. Brotton analyzed the evolution of map projections along with their advantages and disadvantages. The chapter on the dismissive reaction by the international cartographic community of the Arno Peters 1973 projection could have been written for a soap opera. No one liked it yet it was picked up by governments and for use in textbooks. Peters was just the latest mapmaker who attempted to do it, and was assailed for it.

Mapmakers will always be influenced by something or someone, and even when they say they aren’t being manipulated and that their maps are unbiased–as did Peters–it came back to haunt him when the cartographic community simply pointed its fingers and showed him. Politics, religion, personal reputation, and even those who fund the mapmakers are all potential influencers of what a mapmaker’s end product will look like.

Brotton stated again and again and closed his book with this profound assertion:

“There is simply no such thing as an accurate map of the world, and there never will be. The paradox is that we can never know the world without a map, nor definitively represent it with one.”

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