Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Mapmakers - John Noble Wilford

The MapmakersI picked The Mapmakers up probably a year and a half ago while perusing the gift shop at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum; I'm pretty sure I was there to watch Interstellar on the IMAX screen.  I'm not a big Air and Space fan (I favor the American and Natural History museums) but this book and a seemingly-related one in topic, A History of the World in 12 Maps, caught my eye, so I picked them up while I was there.  And they have languished on my shelf ever since.  I finally pegged The Mapmakers as a book to fulfill a reading challenge category for 2016, but it took me more than a month to get through it because, honestly, this book wasn't that interesting.

The Mapmakers purports to be about the people who make maps and who have shaped the history and processes of that making, but honestly, it's not.  There might be snippets about one person or another, like the guy who invented the chronograph and made finding one's position at sea much easier, but these never last more than a page or two.  The author's focus is much more on the evolving technologies of cartography than the people who actually employed them.

The book also feels woefully dated.  This is purportedly an updated version--but the updates only carry through to the end of the 20th century, when GPS systems were just starting to become affordable and having them installed in cars was something shiny and new.  The book is divided into four parts, the first two of which focus on the more ancient mapping aspects and the latter two of which are more "modern."  And by modern, I mean that there's no mention of the Sojourner rover when mentioning mapping Mars, and no concept of where maps have actually gone.  When this book was published, the author clearly had no idea (and really, not many people did, so I can't blame him) that people would be carrying around maps accurate to yards and feet in the palms of their hands via their iPhones, or that they would be using said maps on phones to follow around Pokemon conveniently hidden throughout their towns.  But the fact of the matter is, mapping technology has advanced so far since this book was published that I couldn't help but have this sort of condescending, "Oh, that's so cute" attitude toward so many of the technologies that the author toted as groundbreaking.  And yes, at the time, they were--but the book is frozen in time, as all books are, and it just seems out of touch as a consequence.

Overall, the book was dated, the writing was boring, and the book didn't have the human element that I was hoping to find.  The illustrations were not the beautiful maps that the author toted so often, but instead boring ones.  It'd be hard to keep a book like this up-to-date especially in these days when advances are made so quickly, but this still wasn't the engaging read I had been hoping for.

2 stars out of 5.

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