This is much more than just a coffee-table book. Brotton’s editorial choices encapsulate the long and winding history of map-making, from an iron age petroglyph to the internet era, from an ancient Chinese star chart to Charles Booth’s depiction of poverty in Victorian London.
The great joy of this book is that it includes both famous maps and items that you have probably never encountered before. You will learn a huge amount about the evolution of cartographic technique and be reminded that maps are ‘as much about existence as they are about orientation.’ They could sum up ancient Babylonian or medieval Christian conceptualisations of the cosmos, they could serve as propagandist tools, and they could chart advances in human understandings of the world.
The strange juxtaposition of utility and beauty is another constant. Take Leonardo’s bird’s-eye map of Imola, for instance: the goal was to improve local defensive strategy but the resulting artefact was extraordinarily pretty.
Similarly, the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, produced his lavish world map in order to win the Chinese intelligentsia over to Christianity. He met with little success but, in purely cartographic terms, we can all be pleased that he made the effort.
Brotton talks about the ‘twilight of paper maps.’ I hope he’s wrong, but he’s probably correct. Still, I’d like to think that teenagers with wanderlust will turn off their smart-phones and devour this extraordinary book by torchlight after their parents have told them to go to sleep. The adults will enjoy it, too.
GREAT MAPS: The World’s Masterpieces Explored and Explained by Jerry Brotton, Dorling Kindersley, £20
This review was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine