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The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime Paperback – September 4, 2001

3.2 out of 5 stars 115 customer reviews

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In 1995, a watchful patron alerted a librarian at Johns Hopkins University that another patron, a middle-aged and well-dressed man, was behaving suspiciously. The librarian called the police, who discovered that the man, a Floridian named Gilbert Bland, had cut four maps from a set of rare books. On investigation, the police were able to attribute dozens of similar thefts to Bland, thefts that had taken place at a score of the country's best-regarded--and, presumably, best-protected--scholarly institutions.

Like countless other readers, Miles Harvey, a writer for Outside magazine, encountered the news of Bland's arrest as a brief item in the back pages of the morning newspaper. The story stayed with Harvey, who wondered why otherwise law-abiding people behave so badly around antiquities. In The Island of Lost Maps, a wonderfully rich excursion into the demimonde of what might be called cartographomania, Harvey follows Bland's tracks from library to library, reconstructing the crimes of the man he deems the Al Capone of map theft, following the contours of Bland's complex, sinister character. Along the way, Harvey examines the history of cartography generally, and the ravenous market for old maps--once the quiet province of a few knowing collectors, now invaded by speculators. These maps are just another corner of the overpriced status-symbol commodity market--and one that richly rewarded Bland's nefarious work.

Harvey's winding narrative, full of learned detours, adds up to a superbly rendered tale of true crime (and, many readers might object, of insufficient punishment), one that will appeal to book lovers and mystery buffs in equal measure. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Harvey himself sometimes seems obsessed as he explores the obsession of those who collect maps. Still, this is a challenging and erudite exploration of the explosion in "map culture" and the damage wrought by one determined con man with cartographic passions. Harvey's primary narrative (which originated as an article for Outside magazine) concerns the exploits of Gilbert Bland, a man who on the surface, according to Harvey, did indeed seem bland but who stole approximately $500,000 in antique maps from poorly secured rare-book libraries. Bland was apprehended in 1995 at Baltimore's Peabody Library; he was ultimately charged in several jurisdictions after numerous universities discovered extensive losses, but he plea-bargained for a light sentence. Harvey painstakingly reconstructs the map thief's various identitiesAfor Bland, a "chameleon," had abandoned a number of spouses and children and had engaged in questionable business ventures. Thus is Harvey launched into a larger meditation on the lure of "terra incognita," both literal and metaphoric, whether of Bland's enigmatic life or of undiscovered continents. Harvey uses the Bland case to explore both cartographic history and the dangers of obsession. One collector he examines is controversial map megadealer Graham Arader, considered responsible for cartography's newfound commercialism. Harvey's pursuit of all possible tangents (he even visits a map factory) causes his narrative to become unwieldy at times. But he offers dry wit and a fine sense of the dark places in our contemporary landscape, and he successfully captures both the story of Bland's bizarre "map crime spree" and the underexamined history and politics of contemporary cartography. Agent, Sloan Harris. 50,ooo first printing; 8-city author tour. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (September 4, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767908260
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767908269
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (115 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,225,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Miles Harvey has succeeded in telling a story that not only involves the history of cartography and one man's attempt to profit from stealing the past, but also a personal journey of his own in interpreting the map of the life of thief Gilbert Bland. The journey takes many turns, not too many as to obscure the original destination, but enough well-researched avenues to enhance the experience for the educated reader.
It's like the PBS series "Connections" meets "America's Most Wanted"; Harvey turns ordinary library books into victims of malice aforethought as he traces the crimes and tries on the mind of the criminal.
Finishing this book, I know I'll want to read it again; like an Umberto Eco book, I'll get something new out of it with each read.
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Format: Hardcover
What an unexpected delight. I thought it would be an interesting crime caper, but that was really just the launching point (and central plot line) for a fascinating exploration of a series of intriguing ideas. I had no idea what a profound role map had played in the history or exploration, or especially how maps served as a model for much of the way we think.
Stunning to discover how much of my own mental process mirrored the maps, right down to the imaginary creatures and utopian lands littered around their edges. They have become so integrated into the way we conceive and process our world that they'd disappeared from view, taken for granted, like oxygen. I had studied enough history to grasp how much my world-view was founded on the ideas of the Enlightenment, of Darwin, Einstein and Freud. I had no idea how much was resting on maps. It was jaw-dropping sometimes to see them revealed.
I have to say, I had no idea I would find those subjects interesting either. But I was slyly drawn into these worlds, and found them more fascinating than the crime caper that originally grabbed my attention.
I hope I'm not making this sound like some plodding historical bore. It actually moves along quite quickly, and the modern story of this weird little man in this strange little world is fascinating stuff. (The chapter on the big map-trader Arader was a hoot.) That was what I picked the book up for, and it was everything I expected, but Harvey wove this little adventure seamlessly into a host of other explorations, and those are what made this book truly magical. Really remarkable stuff.
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Format: Hardcover
When I first heard that The Island of Lost Maps had its genesis as a magazine article, I wondered whether it might suffer upon being expanded into a book. My fears were unfounded. Here's a book that not only explores a crime and tries to get into the mind of the thief, it is a wonderful look at the history of cartography, the world of rare maps, their life in the auction houses, etc. I turned page after page, greedily devouring Harvey's deft prose. Some critics have faulted Harvey for intruding too much into the story, but don't believe them. He is engaging, inquiring and downright likeable as an everyman narrator who's been bitten by his curiosity. We should all give into our obsessions as he has in writing this book. Bravo!
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Format: Hardcover
Sometimes just the experience of holding a book is enough to excite the reader about it. Miles Harvey's The Island of Lost Maps is one of those books. Handsomely bound and richly appointed, the book itself is evocative of lost treasures and forgotten stories. The prints which accompany the text are well selected and are themselves mute testament to stories of an age gone by. Physically this book is a most appropriate vessel for the modern story of a self- proclaimed antiquarian (Gilbert Bland) who was caught purloining some of the world's rarest maps from unsuspecting libraries across North America.
From the onset Harvey does a fine job in using the story of the map thief as a narrative thread to which he attaches informative and entertaining anecdotes about such things as the history of cartography, the modern hobby (and business) of collecting ancient maps and mapmaking itself. Added to this, some brief sketches of some of the modern "players" in the map business and a few historical reconstructions of significant cartographic events guarantee that Harvey has constructed a book which is sure to engage and inform even the most supercilious reader. As Harvey admits in the text there are some unexplained holes in the story of Gilbert Bland, but Harvey is able, by evoking the spirit of cartography to seemingly enmesh the reader in his own quest to discover more about the enigmatic Mr Bland. Through this book the reader quickly comes to feel that they are on their own quest for the truth within the book; a quality which makes this book the outstanding read that it is. If there is one drawback to this book, it is the sentimental ending; which is unnecessarily romantic and self-involved.
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Format: Hardcover
Gilbert Bland, a Florida antique dealer was arrested outside the Peabody Library in Baltimore in 1995. In his possession were some of the library's rare maps; Gilbert had neatly sliced them out of Atlases with a razor. As Bland's story unfolds we learn that over the years he had stolen nearly 250 maps worth $500,000, and had subsequently sold them to unsuspecting map collectors. For this, the author calls him "the Al Capone of cartography, the greatest American map thief in history." THE ISLAND OF LOST MAPS is the story of Gilbert Bland and cartography.
When the book sticks to cartography it's fine. Especially when we read about some of the quirky behavior of the "curious subculture made up of map historians, map librarians, map dealers, and map collectors - all gripped by an obsession both surreal and sublime." The story of W. Graham Arader III, the "Bill Gates" of the map world is a case in point. He operates in the rarefied air of map collecting where a single map can sell for $2,000,000. Also, what word but eccentric, could be used to describe a little trick used by cartographers to keep tabs on their work. They draw a ridiculously named cul-de-sac somewhere on their map. If another company's street map depicts this 'trap street', the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the original was plagiarized.
The book disappoints when the subject moves from cartography to Gilbert Bland - for two reasons. Look no further than the man's name for the first. Gilbert was...well...bland. A map dealer who knew him is quoted as saying "there was no personality...nothing there." Therefore when the book spends a lot of time exploring motives, looking at Bland's Vietnam service record, interviewing his family - we lose interest.
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