Book review: Map Addict by Mike Parker


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Like any self-respecting geek, I have my non-fiction books arranged through my own personal classification system. I’m not content with shoving them in any old way just so they fit. But I’m not going to use the Dewey decimal system because, frankly, that’s what the man wants you to do. Instead I have them arranged in loose categories of subject, preserving the most important quality of any categorization: I can find things in a matter of seconds, but anyone else would have to search for a while.

Occasionally, however, a book comes along that leaves me scratching my head and wondering exactly what category it should fall into. Map Addict is just such a book.

At first glance, it’s certainly a tough sell: a book about the history of mapping and one man’s obsession with cartography. Yet it’s genuinely captivating and full of fascinating trivia. For example, did you know that maps were originally drawn so that East was at the top of the page? And from that practice, by which the main reference point was the far East, we get the term orientation.

The subject of which way up the map should go makes up much of a chapter on mapping politics. The book notes that a Northern-most orientation is a purely arbitrary system as there is no “correct” way to show a sphere which consistently spins. It also reveals that in the famed picture of Earth taken from the Apollo 17 shuttle, the image has actually been flipped vertically so that the North pole is at the top of the picture as we expect.

Seeing a map of the world with the South at the top is not only disorientating but makes countries appear very different in stature and prominence. In this example, the West-East orientation is also altered so that Australia gets prime billing:

It’s not only the orientation of maps which can affect our perceptions. The standard map which most of us are familiar with in fact dates back to 1569, created by Gerardus Mercator, and is simply the surface of a globe flattened out and smoothed into a rectangular shape.

What few people realize is that the result is misleading: as Parker notes, it appears that Brazil and Alaska are roughly the same size, when in fact the former is five times larger. This is “corrected” in the most popular alternative world map, created by Arno Peters in 1973:

Whether its merely coincidence that the “standard” world map overemphasizes the prominence of North America and Europe over Africa and South America is just one of several thorny political issues discussed in the book. Another is the almost soap-opera like story of how international powers agreed the global time zone system should have its meridian running through Britain. There’s also a look at the use of maps as satire, most notably one which depicts England as a caricature of King George III, appearing to defecate into the mouth of France.

The book also covers the issue of borders, particularly the quirks that can be thrown up such as the town of Baarle which is in both Belgium and the Netherlands, with multiple borders running through streets and even through some houses:

If this is sounding too political and heavy, don’t fear. The tone of the book, while informative, is light enough for a pleasurable read. And there is much more to the book than politics. Chapters include the relevance of mapping to religion, sex, the realities behind gender stereotypes, technology and good old fashioned obsession. Parker himself claims to have been so obsessed by maps as a child that he would steal from bookshops in an attempt to collect the entire set of Ordinance Survey maps covering the United Kingdom.

There’s even a passionate explanation of his five favorite maps in the series, chosen mainly for the beauty of the shapes of the land charted in them, along with his five least favorite, which includes one that is 91 percent sea.

Parker also takes his obsession out in the real world, visiting places just because they look interesting on the map. Or not as the case may be: at one stage he visits a field because it is the site of the most featureless grid square (representing 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer) in the country, that section of the map being utterly blank save for the symbol for an electricity pylon.

If you’re a fan of maps, you’ve probably already read this book. But this isn’t a book for lovers of cartography, it’s a book for lovers of people who are just about on the healthy side of an obsession with what seems like a dry subject but can convey it in a compelling manner that resonates with any reader.

Put another way, if you love geekdom, you’ll love Map Addict.





9 Responses to Book review: Map Addict by Mike Parker

  1. >> most notably one which depicts England as a caricature of King George III, appearing to defecate into the mouth of France.

    Ever notice how Manhattan Island looks like a giant pensis, pissing on Staten Island?

  2. On a similar note, the Mull of Kintyre, a peninsular in Scotland, has a similar shape and orientation. There’s an unofficial policy in the UK that a penis shown on TV must be flaccid enough that it’s angle doesn’t exceed that of the Mull.

  3. >> most notably one which depicts England as a caricature of King George III, appearing to defecate into the mouth of France.

    Ever notice how Manhattan Island looks like a giant pensis, pissing on Staten Island?

  4. On a similar note, the Mull of Kintyre, a peninsular in Scotland, has a similar shape and orientation. There's an unofficial policy in the UK that a penis shown on TV must be flaccid enough that it's angle doesn't exceed that of the Mull.

  5. I did not enjoy this book. The trivia was not trivial enough and it seemed to have no coherence or structure. It was a tedious ramble around someone else’s interest in mapping, which did not come across as especially well informed (given that he ahd managed to wangle a commission to write a book about it) or especially entertaining. It is a shame it was not as good a book as it could have been.

  6. I did not enjoy this book. The trivia was not trivial enough and it seemed to have no coherence or structure. It was a tedious ramble around someone else's interest in mapping, which did not come across as especially well informed (given that he ahd managed to wangle a commission to write a book about it) or especially entertaining. It is a shame it was not as good a book as it could have been.

  7. Mike,maybe I am an addict like yourself, got your book for Xmas,master stroke by the good lady, to be honest,not even through the intro yet, however I know where you are coming from.Great fascination in maps,ground models,air photography ect, started years ago. Anywhere I go,must have or study a map,must know where I am at all times, no great issue. Got me out of many a sticky situation when I was in the Army and the Officer in Charge would rather use me,than my superiors to get from A-B. Only came across your book by chance. Cheers.