Thursday, October 6, 2011

Excerpts: The Island of Lost Maps

The Origins of Political Order

From "The Island of Lost Maps," by Miles Harvey:

Open quote 

At first, Bland had seemed to me an exotic and intriguing figure - but, as is often the case with familiarity, the more I learned about him, the less interesting he became. He was, I ultimately determined, a fairly unexceptional person who had happened to commit a fascinating crime."

After the jump, my review and more excerpts.

Grade: C-

This book, published in 2000, is a map thief's tale padded to book length with historical anecdotes, most lifted from other books. Harvey writes in the first person of his quest to uncover the motivations behind one Gilbert Bland, a thief who sliced hundreds of historic maps from antique atlases in dozens of libraries across the US and Canada and then sold them to antique map dealers around the country. But Bland doesn't cooperate with the author, robbing Harvey's narrative of its promise. Worse, Bland turns out to be a not very interesting character at all. The quote above pretty much explains why the book, as a whole, fails.

So Harvey pads the story to book length with a scattershot history of explorers, the maps they used or produced from their travels, and the libraries and collectors that now own them. Much of that is extracted from the writings of other historians. Perhaps the only subplot of any real value in this book is the carelessness that surrounds the handling of these priceless antiques by the libraries that currently possess them (or don't possess them, as many libraries show a shameful indifference to determining whether they are even victims of Bland's crime spree).

In short, the topic is promising and the book could have been riveting, but Harvey just doesn't know how to bring out the best in these old maps.


"According to legend, one Carthaginian sea captain sank his ship rather than let his sea charts fall into Roman hands. His crew drowned, but he was given a hero’s welcome upon his return home."

"The Portuguese controlled the Indies because the Portuguese controlled the maps. Attempting to establish and preserve a trade monopoly, Henry the Navigator and his successors guarded their navigational secrets with an iron hand."

"In overcoming such hardships, those two journeys [Columbus and Magellan] accomplished the miraculous: they made the world bigger. And for hundreds of years it continued to grow. But then - once the map was finally filled in - a curious thing happened: the world started getting smaller again."

"Of course, Patagonia never had Patagons and Amazonia never had Amazons. The explorers were liars."

"Graham Arader never claimed to be a purist, however, and when he was trying to make a name for himself in the 1970s, the sum value of the individual maps from an atlas was often greater than the value of the atlas itself. Predictably, Arader acted as businessman, not as bibliophile: he would buy up atlases and other art books, cut them apart, and sell off the plates one by one."

"No one had called the police. No one, apparently, had noticed that the maps were gone. It was an invisible crime spree, hidden amid the seldom-opened pages of centuries-old books. And its perpetrator was the invisible criminal."

"The intruder had caused him to understand that while he would haunt this piece of air forever, all he had worked so hard to create could disappear, page by page, book by book, shelf by shelf, wall by wall, until the Peabody was nothing but a landmark on some old city plan, the last faded trace of his life. Of what use is eternity without the past?"

"Still, if I had to pick out a single overriding motive for map theft, I would opt for the one that’s been driving cartographic crime for centuries: simple greed."

"But, in his usually pugnacious style, the map mogul laid much of the blame for the ongoing wave of thefts squarely on the shoulders of librarians, who he claimed are simply not vigilant enough. 'Most librarians are incompetent, boring, and dull,' he said."

"Yet, despite such get-tough rhetoric, the librarians knew that their own peers were partly to blame for the situation. Of the nineteen institutions allegedly hit by Bland, only four had pressed charges. The others had simply let the matter drop."

"He knew that the judicial system was a lot like the antiques business: if you had something that the other side desperately wanted, you were likely to get a very favorable deal. And so, before surrendering to police, Voodoo-man Bland pulled off his most remarkable piece of prestidigitation: he made hundreds of old maps disappear, as if into thin air."

"new satellite technologies have led to one of the most productive periods in the history of cartography, comparable only to the golden age of mapmaking in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."

"As we head into the twenty-first century, the last great topographical mystery on Earth - the global seafloor - is finally surrendering its secrets."

P.S. I read this book in eBook format, checking it out online from the Richardson Public Library. All in all, a great public service from the City of Richardson. I say, "Check it out."

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