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Tom Fort

No More Blank Spaces

On The Map: Why the world looks the way it does
By Simon Garfield (Profile Books 464pp £16.99)

I did not know that a reliable and discreet way of stealing a map from a book is to suck on a thread of cotton and lay it along the bound edge until the enzymes have thinned the binding sufficiently for the page to be gently detached. The cruder, swifter way - with a blade - was favoured by the most prolific of all map thieves, Edward Forbes Smiley, who half-inched 97 of them from libraries in America and Britain. Another serial larcenist, Gilbert Bland, simply tore them out: 'I just wanted them,' was his explanation when he came up in court.

We can sympathise with the sentiment, if not with the methods. The passion for making and possessing maps is as old as our curiosity about the world we inhabit. Simon Garfield's rich and revealing book is one more notable celebration of it.

In part the book is a straightforward retelling of the history of cartography, beginning with the establishment of the great Library of Alexandria by Alexander the Great, where Eratosthenes created his scheme of the three known continents. Familiar names follow: Strabo and Ptolemy, whose weakness for filling blank spaces with fanciful notions would, in Garfield's words, 'send ambitious sailors, Columbus among them, to places they had no intention of seeing'.

Map-makers with disorderly imaginations were always dangerous. One of the early maps to show the new western hemisphere was Martin Waldseemüller's 12-panelled masterpiece of 1507. By 1622, California - previously shown as attached to Mexico - had mysteriously drifted offshore and become an island. The misconception persisted for centuries; indeed, according to Garfield, a Japanese map of 1865 had it still gloriously seabound.

In the early days cartographers were generally content to fill the empty spaces by dropping in dragons, sea monsters and the like. But as knowledge advanced, confession of ignorance seemed shaming. Few responded so outlandishly as James Rennell - previously a map-maker of unimpeachable rectitude. Commissioned to provide maps for an edition of Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, he conjured an entirely fictitious range of mountains, the Mountains of Kong, stretching between Nigeria and Sierra Leone. It took nearly a hundred years for a French traveller, Louis-Gustave Binger, to demonstrate that these mighty peaks existed in Rennell's imagination and nowhere else.

It's unlikely that Rennell intended to deceive. But by its nature the map world tends to attract dodgy types and inspire questionable products. In 1957, one Enzo Ferrajoli de Ry (later jailed for map theft) offered for sale what purported to be a map drawn fifty years before Columbus's voyages, showing part of Newfoundland or Labrador. The implication of the so-called Vinland Map was that Norsemen had found North America long before Columbus drew breath. Even now no one knows for sure if the map is a fake. Either way, as Garfield observes, 'the mystery of Vinland shows us the power of maps to fascinate, excite and provoke'.

Goggling in wonder at the epic Blaeu Atlas Maior - 11 folio volumes containing 594 maps and 3,368 pages of text, published in Amsterdam between 1659 and 1672 - Garfield uses the words 'lusciously Baroque'. Something of the same over-the-top exuberance runs through his own book. One moment he is telling the story of how Dr John Snow mapped an outbreak of cholera in Soho in the 1850s, thus enabling the source - an infected water pump - to be pinpointed. The next, he embarks upon a dazzling tour of 'treasure island' maps, real and imagined. Robert Louis Stevenson's own map for his classic adventure is reproduced, as is that drawn by a London barrister, Edward Knight, of the frightful island of Trinidad (the South Atlantic one), where he and nine 'gentlemen adventurers' spent three tormented months digging for treasure, fending off giant land crabs, and finding nothing. 'They had followed a map and a dream,' writes Garfield, 'and they had returned poorer but wiser.'

He tracks many dreams himself, and reveals many treasures. In the context of the mapping of Mars, he encounters the legendary stargazer Sir Patrick Moore, of whose several books about the planet - including Can You Play Cricket on Mars? - Garfield observes drolly: 'The books had one thing in common (apart from being about Mars): they almost all contradicted each other.' Equally colourful is his audience with W Graham Arader III, the world's leading map dealer and 'the wealthiest ... the most combative and bombastic, the most feared, the most loathed'. Just as good is Garfield's account of the mapping of London, from John Norden's 1593 guide 'for cuntrey men in the famous cittey of LONDON' to Phyllis Pearsall's immortal A-Z.

Perhaps because of my advanced age, I cannot share Garfield's enthusiasm for the dawning of the age of digital maps. Early on he says: 'I seem to recall we used to buy maps that folded, or maps that once folded when they were new and then never again ... That these simple pleasures are becoming distant memories is no small change.' Simple pleasures and, in my view, irreplaceable ones. As for the ambition of Google Earth to map every house on every street and every car on every drive, that strikes me as odiously invasive. Garfield quotes a power-crazed Google executive as aiming to map the planet's estimated four hundred billion trees. I hope to goodness he misses a forest or two. Surely the point of maps, as demonstrated by Simon Garfield, is not to strip our world of all its mysteries, but to help reveal them.

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Tom Fort's latest book, The A303: Highway to the Sun, is due out in paperback in June.

Royal Literary Fund

John Murray