Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The World Through Maps

The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography
© 2003 John Short
224 pages


Cartography has interested me ever since elementary school, when I read that Christopher Columbus worked in a cartographer's shop. The idea that people made maps fascinated me, and I wondered what what it entailed, thinking of men sailing the coasts of islands and pain-stakingly portraying what they saw. I enjoy enjoy older maps, or those included in fantasy books, as art, for they tend to be charmingly illustrated.

Short begins by explaining the language of maps -- perspective, scale, orientation, the like -- and commenting on their uses before diving into the general history. Short's book begins with rock-art maps steeped in mythology, then moves to Babylonian maps on wax tablets that portray landowners' plots in an irrigation zone. Sections following these tend to be short -- two pages -- and roam the world. Short places emphasis on the idea that maps portray what cultures deem most important, and points out religious and political elements within maps as they come. Although every other culture in the book receives a scant few pages, Short devotes several sections to the mapping of North America and specifically the United States. I expect this disproportional emphasis on the US reflects the target audience -- Americans.  Although he drops plenty of trivia, the book isn't comprehensive: reading the sections on Islamic or Chinese maps gives the reader a glimpse of what they might've been like, but the effect is kin to trying to enjoy the plot of a fictional novel by reading the plot summary on the back. Still, the illustrations of maps are fetching, especially the Renaissance works that depicted their cities with a near-isometric perspective. The effect is more a work of art -- the illustration of a city -- than a map.

More a severe summary of cartographic history than an actual history, this book was enjoyable more for the art and less for the text, although the limited background information did come in handy when trying to understand older maps, especially medieval works.

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