“Maps hold a clue to what makes us human,” Simon Garfield writes in the introduction to his lively, loose-limbed exploration of our seemingly tireless quest to visually represent the lay of the land. Garfield’s interest in the human side of mapmaking—the personalities, anecdotes, curiosities—is what makes On the Map such an enjoyable read.

Garfield’s 22 chapters follow a rough chronology, beginning with the Great Library of Alexandria, where Eratosthenes of Cyrene in the third century B.C. came remarkably close to calculating the true circumference of the earth, and ending with contemporary medicine’s attempt to map the human brain. In between, he regales readers with tales of mapmakers and map thieves, treasure maps, the origins of the atlas and the development of the beautiful schematic map of the London tube. Who was Mercator and why do we think his distortion-filled map is so important? How did the Americas come to be named after Amerigo Vespucci, a former bank clerk who sailed for South America nearly a decade after Columbus reached the Caribbean? Why did a nonexistent mountain range remain on maps of Africa for almost a century? The answers can be found in On the Map.

An Englishman, Garfield’s topic selections skew toward the British, but On the Map also includes chapters on the grid map of Manhattan and the mapping efforts of the Lewis and Clark expedition (with an interesting aside on Native Americans’ evanescent sand maps). So On the Map is capacious rather than comprehensive. It is also vastly entertaining.

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