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Updated Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 07:01 AM

‘On the Map’: The wonderful world of maps, from A to Z

By Adam Woog
Special to The Seattle Times

“On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks”

by Simon Garfield

Gotham, 464 pp., $27.50

Simon Garfield would have to work hard to write a dull book.

Garfield has a knack for creating high-spirited, erudite and user-friendly books on subjects that may seem crashingly dull to all but a few fanatics. Stamp collecting, old-time wrestlers, the chemist who discovered how to mass-produce color dyes — these are just some of the unlikely subjects that have caught the British writer’s eye.

Not to mention the odd, fascinating world of typography, which was the subject of his surprise best-seller, 2011’s “Just My Type.”

The topic of Garfield’s new book, “On the Map,” is more familiar: It’s about, well, maps. It is, so to say, territory that has already been well trod. I’ll bet cash money, though, that even the most hard-core map geeks will find something wonderful here.

Using a more straightforward, less cheeky approach than in “Just My Type,” Garfield is a terrific guide. His brisk trot through the world of maps includes dozens of rich topics that individually would make compelling books.

For example, the vital military and commercial intelligence in the maps of early European explorers (back when they thought California was an island). Or the development of atlases, globes, and ordnance maps. Not to mention Lewis and Clark. And how about the real-life treasure hunters who have, over the years, looked for various X’s marking the spot?

Other topics: the British surveyor for whom Mount Everest is named. (His surname was pronounced Eeev-rest. Who knew?) Or Dr. John Snow, whose revolutionary way of mapping disease outbreaks revolutionized epidemiology.

Also maps for travelers, from Baedeker, Michelin and Frommer to the Rough Guides and, of course, GPS and Google Maps. Not to mention the forgeries, brazen theft and other shenanigans found in the world of rare-map collecting.

And then there’s the weird stuff, like the Mountains of Kong, a range spanning sub-Saharan Africa east and west, first noted in 1798.

The thing is, there is no such range. Never was. Completely made up. But the information went viral, 19th-century style, appearing on countless maps well into the late 1800s. It was an early form of the way in which completely bogus information now zips across the cyberworld, then is taken at face value and reproduced endlessly.

One criticism: The book is Eurocentric. There’s little discussion of, say, ancient Chinese or Japanese mapmaking. But then, maps have always favored one’s homeland; American maps often have the U.S. at the center, etc. Garfield, a Brit, is just carrying on the tradition.

Apart from that, “On the Map” is a treasure: exhilarating, witty, compulsively readable and just plain fun. It makes you want to grab an ordnance map and take off. Or simply remain a dazzled armchair traveler. You choose.

Special bonus: the amazing endpapers on this baby. They reproduce a parody of the London’s Underground’s famous color-coded, stylized map, this time expanded to cover the world. Seattle to Chongqing with no transfers, stopping in places like Chicago, Rotterdam and Omsk? We wish.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.


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