Maps – a little love story

I refuse to buy a satnav.  Despite the wrong turns, dead ends and panic-stricken moments down narrow country lanes I’m not giving in.  Firstly I resent the idea of turning on a machine and simultaneously turning off my brain (you could say this about numerous types of technology I know but there’s something undeniable triumphal about getting yourself from lost to found through a bit of map-reading and navigational know-how), and secondly, maps are beautiful things and I worry that with our ever increasing ability to use technology to find our way around we’re going to lose both the objects themselves and the skills to read them.  It was one of my favourite things I ever learned in school: assessing the gradient of a hill from contour lines, deciphering the myriad of symbols used to signify churches, bridges and windmills…. maps are the world around us depicted in the most elegant and fascinating visual code, and they enthral me still.

I remember in my early bookselling days many years ago we’d be asked for world atlases on a pretty regular basis, and we’d always have a varied supply showcasing a range of sizes and designs.  People would spend a long time comparing them and considering which scale, colour scheme and layout they preferred, but over the years sales dwindled; after all, why would you want an enormous atlas taking up valuable space when a few taps on an ipad will tell you everything you need to know?  Just as I’m stubborn over the satnav, however, I’m also stubborn in hanging on to my enormous and very much loved atlas.  It’s a hefty bit of book and weighs a ton, but how amazing is it to have the entire world laid out in glorious large scale detail on your living room floor?  No image on a computer screen or tablet can replicate that.

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I have an inkling though that, like vinyl and Phil Collins, maps are starting to make something of a comeback.  I may not sell many atlases any more but I have come across a number of gorgeous books on the subject of maps themselves.  “The Phantom Atlas” by Edward Brooke-Hitching is one of my personal favourites, a compendium of myths, mistakes and sometimes downright lies that have made their way onto various maps over the centuries.  Who’d have thought a non-existent island could have appeared on official maritime navigational charts for 136 years until someone realised (as recently as 2012!) it wasn’t actually there?  Then of course there are the partly imagined maps of the Middle Ages and earlier, which fill their spaces with all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures drawn from legend or awestruck eyewitness accounts.  These are not merely guides to the world but to the minds of the people who were attempting to reach beyond their own borders for the first time, and could in many ways be considered works of art.  I’d also recommend “On the Map”, a fun and very readable homage to the map in all its forms written by Simon Garfield who, I strongly suspect, loves all things cartographic as much as I do.


Maybe the hypnotic voice telling us gently but firmly to turn right in 483 yards has its place; after all, if I wasn’t so resolute in my shunning of technological help it would never have taken me over three hours to get from Lewes to Folkestone (if you live anywhere in the South East of England you’ll know just how ridiculous that is), but I hope – and believe – there are enough of us out there to keep the magic of the map alive for generations to come.

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