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Customer Review

on January 21, 2001
"The Mapmakers" by John Noble Wilford (ISBN 0-375-40929-7) published by Knopf/Random House in August 2000 is an updated version of the 1981 text. The revisions reflect the radical changes in the process of map-making that we already take for granted. It is of interest to anyone who has ever paddled along a complex shoreline, looked at a map, and thought " I could be here, there or anywhere". Or to anyone who has spent a winter dreaming of a lake or river, seen only in the mind's eye aided by a "window" created by maps...
This book covers the history of cartography or map-making from ancient times to the present day . Drawing on various sources, it explores the "need" to create maps both as a concrete form of communication describing the physical location of objects and our relationship to them, as well as the philosophical beliefs which can make "maps lie" based on the ideological bias of the map-maker, and the prejudices of the user. It traces in chronological format the evolution of maps (beginning in pre-history judging from some cave paintings) , from the Near East and Egypt in the period from 2000BC, to Greek philosophical conceptions of the world, to the civil engineering and mapping of the Romans, to the laughably inaccurate and fabricated maps of the early Middle Ages reflecting Europe's inward turning in the pre-Renaissance period. The Age of Discovery and the slow progress in developing maps for coastal trade reaching further and further from home, the new ( and rediscovered) technologies that aided the "mapping of both the African route to Asia, as well as the nascent understanding of the New World coastline, are covered in great detail.
Time is given to the development of map projections, problems of determining latitude and longitude, early and modern navigational devices, as well as the individuals who pioneered new concepts in mapping, often with their achievements lying fallow for another 100 years or more. Problems of mapping even long settled areas like France are discussed in the context of new systems of measuring land, as well as the State's "need" to quantify it's holdings in a more scientific manner.
The author develops his concepts within the book like small streams joining to form a great river, over a great distance and time. The final third of the book is a torrent , as the various technologies are refined, demand for accurate maps increases, and communication becomes almost instant. In the discussion of the modern era there is a already a quaintness to the debates as to whether map making might ever be "automated", or derived from computerized data alone. In the final chapters the book moves beyond the mapping of coast lines, cities and Earth itself, to mapping projects of Mars and the Universe itself. Yet the author retains his premise that maps locate the human mind in space and time, and are as essential to humans as language itself. An interesting premise early in the book is that the creation of maps may have pre-dated the complexities of language. Certainly anyone who has ever had someone "draw them a map" when words and language were insufficient , might be intrigued by both the history and ideas contained in this book!
52 helpful votes
53 helpful votes
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