11 July 2008

The Island of Lost Maps

Recently I finished The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey. It was a pretty good read, especially so for a map geek like me. A brief review follows the jump.

I enjoyed the book, but it is a weird little tome. You may or may not have heard about the crime spree that inspired it--odds are you didn't, since I think the only major news outlet that covered it was NPR and I listen to NPR all the time. Of course this was back in the late 1990s.

Nonetheless, it's a strange subject for a book--and indeed, the book's subject seems to drift around a lot. Is it about old maps? Map-collecting and map collectors? Gilbert Bland (the thief in question)? Or is it about Mr. Harvey's search for Gilbert Bland? Really, it's all of those things, and that could be leveled as criticism against the book, if you were inclined to do so. I won't.

The book can be fascinating at times. Harvey's descriptions of the Peabody Library in Baltimore, of Bland's crime there, his dealings with the map trader Graham Arader, are all fascinating reading, and great writing. Harvey is generally at his best when treading historical waters here and those passages are always interesting.

The book is a quick read until about the last third, when things begin to slow down a great deal as we focus less on Mr. Bland and the history of cartography and more on Mr. Harvey and his research for the book. As he starts soul-searching about what exactly it is he's doing, we start asking ourselves the same question, and that's never a good idea in a book. I shouldn't be wondering why you're bothering to write this--and if you're not sure yourself, you certainly shouldn't tell me.

Fortunately it all picked up a little at the very end, just before the epilogue, and on the whole it's certainly an interesting read. Harvey's writing on the nature of map geeks and what it means for us to stare at a map and be absorbed by it for hours is the most eloquent writing on the subject I've ever seen. Well worth the time.


AMS said...

It's about time you finished reading this. I gave it to you how many ages ago? =)

Smitty said...

Oh, it was at least three years ago I think.
Incidentally, it looks like it's been read before. Is it yours? Do you want it back?