Using this book’s subtitle as your guide, you might expect to find a collection of ‘profiles’ that describe the history and significance of some of the world’s most influential maps. But this is definitely not that. Rather, it’s a deeply idiosyncratic history of cartography, geography and surveying, from Stone Age symbols to Digital Age interactive maps. The meandering text features digressions on everything from Sumerian counting systems and ancient origin myths to Scandinavian border disputes, as well as some half-hearted imagined depictions of historical figures at work: ‘In the evening [Ptolemy] sits in the flickering candlelight of his room and writes down several more place names and coordinates…’
Adding another layer of idiosyncrasy is the fact that the book was originally written in Norwegian and, despite the author’s attempts to make the book more widely accessible, the text still habitually finds ways to circle back to Norway. The reader is even introduced to ‘the oldest surviving map of a part of Norway to be drawn by someone who lived there’.
Some of the maps that the author discusses appear as full- and double-page illustrations, but unfortunately, they often don’t appear adjacent to the relevant text, forcing a certain amount of flipping back and forwards. In between, the copy is filled out with long, rather boring quotes from ancient texts.
Idiosyncrasies aside, it’s a fount of interesting cartographic titbits, such as the mystery of why the legendary mapmaker Gerardus Mercator depicted Greenland as an island more than 300 years before anyone actually established that it was one. However, it is at heart a collection of facts whose relationship to the point requires a map of its own.
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