Thursday, May 6, 2010

I am a very slow reader

There have been a number of good map related books out recently. I would have reviewed these books when they first arrived but I like to take my time and enjoy a good read. Sometimes that time turns into months.

First up is The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester.

Originally this was imagined as a book about the 1507 Martin Waldseemüller map that is commonly considered to be the first map to use the name "America."

However, the scope of the book expands into a broad geopolitical history of European exploration and colonialism that is the context in which this map appeared. This is a fascinating look at the religious and commercial motivations behind the urge to explore the world and at the revival of science, humanism and the knowledge of the ancient Greeks. Unfortunately the book is a bit Eurocentric in that it glosses over the contributions and discoveries of Chinese, Arab and even northern European scientists and explorers. However, the author does at least acknowledge that fact in his preface.
This "macrohistory" details travels of Marco Polo and others to the far east, the search for the mythical Prester John, attempts to determine the world's circumference, the uncertain dimensions of Africa, the Papal Schism, and the effects of the Spanish Inquisition on regional commerce. It also covers the rivalries among Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, other explorers and the countries that they sailed for. All these threads are tied up into a cohesive narrative.

The production of the Waldseemüller map is detailed in the final chapters but the book is more about the historical and cultural journey that lead to this map rather than the finished product.

Next up we have Lost States by Michael J. Trinklein.

The cover of this book is a fold-out map! Very cool. This book details various failed schemes to create new states. Each state features a map and a short history. Some of the descriptions are a bit too short and the author often substitutes amusing flip comments for valuable historical context. Some of the maps are a bit sloppy.
For example his delineation of Acacdia - a straight line across Maine with no regard for the geography or culture of the state.

Speaking of sloppy, note the name of the state above New Mexico on this map of Comancheria.
Also some of the "states" seem to be pointless filler. Iceland? Guyana? Albania? It's a pretty long stretch to consider these as serious proposals.

The book has a nice blog with some additional worthwhile information.

Finally, as a fellow map blogger, I should mention Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities by Frank Jacobs.

He has taken entries from his popular blog Strange Maps and turned them into a book. I did not run out and get the book because I am a regular reader of his blog and as I understand it, there is no additional content. The blog is always full of interesting content so I'm sure the book is too. When I was in 7th grade, I tried to review a book that I did not read. The results were not so good so I won't repeat that mistake here.

There are several other good map books that have come out in the last year. Maybe I'll get to those but I am a very slow reader. 

Full disclosure section:
"Lost States" was sent to me for free by the publisher.
"The Fourth Part of the World" was a gift from my mother in law.
I do not have a copy of "Strange Maps"

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