January 24, 2013
My love of maps is well known and of long standing, so it's no surprise that I was drawn to Simon Garfield's book On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks.
Along the way, however, I also picked up the same author's book Just My Type, a history of typography – a field about which I know considerably less, but about which I wanted to know a great deal more.
I was frustrated, however, by the haphazard way that Garfield approached the history of typefaces. While the individual anecdotes were often quite entertaining, the author seemed grimly determined to be clever about how he said things.
This is forgivable if, and only if, accuracy is not sacrificed and the cleverness is actually clever. Let us only say that Garfield was hit and miss in the latter category.
I could not judge the accuracy of his statements because the book failed to do the obvious thing: Provide a full alphabet of each typeface as it was discussed. Where samples were given, I was suspicious of some of the statements made about them.
But I had not given up; it was simply a matter of coincidence and convenience that I found myself in a hotel room, beginning to read On the Map while Just My Type languished at home beside my bed.
I was scarcely 30 pages into On the Map when I had to thumb back and forth to be sure I had not misread. Did he really say that Herodotus "saw the Caspian Sea – accurately – as a vast inlet, unlike many of his successors"?
Yes, that's what he said, right there on page 25.
The Caspian Sea is definitely not an inlet, vast or otherwise, but rather an inland sea with no connection to any ocean. Was it possible that Garfield simply didn't know what "inlet" meant?
The question became completely baffling on page 28, when Garfield spoke of the map of Eratosthenes: "There are giant inlets of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, both of which erroneously flow into the oceans."
While the version of the map of Eratosthenes shown on pages 30 and 31 does have a narrow connection between the Caspian Sea and the northern ocean (perhaps an error drawn from reports of the mouth of the Volga), it is not "erroneous" to show the Persian Gulf as a "giant inlet" of the Indian Ocean.
Our fleets sail through the straits of Hormuz into and out of the Persian Gulf whenever policy requires. It is a hard thing to charge Eratosthenes with an "error" that sailors have made, without running aground, for thousands of years.
Since Garfield is touted as a wonderful writer, I am puzzled by his statement that Stravo "was born in 63 BC in Amasia by the Black Sea, and survived long enough to straddle the Common Era."
I think he meant to say "survived into the Common Era." Since the Common Era is not yet over, and by our system of reckoning cannot ever end, it is impossible to straddle it. To "straddle" means to be on both sides of something at the same time. One can only straddle the division between the negative dating of the years BC and the years ...
Wait. Not only does Garfield not know what straddle means, he mixes his nomenclature. "BC" means "before Christ," and the time on our side of the boundary is tagged "AD," meaning "Anno Domini," or "year of our Lord."
However, since this annoys non-Christians, most scholars now speak of our time as the "Common Era." But then the term for the years before is not "BC," but "BCE" – "Before Common Era."
Then there's the head-scratcher on page 27, where Garfield says Eratosthenes' map shows "three recognizable continents – Europe to the northeast, Africa ... beneath it and Asia occupying the eastern half of the map."
But ... but ... Eratosthenes shows Europe to the northwest.
Does Garfield's publisher not have any editors on staff to catch errors like these? Apparently not. But you don't even have to be an expert on cartography to catch these mistakes.
You only have to pay attention, which neither Garfield nor his publisher seem to have done.
These may seem small things, mere annoyances. But I don't think so. This carelessness and/or ignorance, so obvious in the first chapter, completely destroys any idea I might have of believing anything Garfield has to say.
So muddy is his thinking that, even though he gives Eratosthenes full credit for a very good attempt at a measured estimate of the size of the Earth as a sphere, he is still capable of writing that his grid lines "affirmed the common belief that the earth's length from west to east was more than double its breadth from north to south."
I think what he meant was that it was a common belief that the land mass of Europe, Asia and Africa was wider from west to east than from north to south (which is actually truish, if you are measuring only "habitable lands" as defined by the Greeks).
But Eratosthenes, who believed – and demonstrated – that the Earth is an orb, could hardly have believed that the earth was longer from west to east than north to south.
When you're writing about something as precise as map-making – and commenting on accuracies and inaccuracies in ancient maps – don't you then have a responsibility to make sure your writing is precisely accurate?
I don't usually review books that I don't read all the way through. But, just as I sometimes write a review explaining why I walked out of a movie, I write this view to explain why I am setting this book aside – and Just My Type as well.
I don't insist on rigid accuracy – in my own work or in the works of others. People make mistakes all the time. But Garfield purports to be informing us of facts, and to be commenting about two fields in which fine distinctions matter very, very much.
After all, it was for want of complete, precise maps that Lee failed to destroy McClellan's army during the Peninsula campaign in the Civil War. And we've all had our GPS glitches when a tool we relied on gave us false information.
Garfield's sins are not those of vagueness or approximation. Rather he makes statements that are false, misleading or completely incoherent.
Life is short. Brainspace is precious. Why should I spend any more of my time putting the language and ideas of such a careless or ignorant writer into my head?
I think of books of pseudo-scholarship like Garfield's to be only just a little shy of being hoaxes and frauds. People buy such books thinking they're going to learn something.
Contrast Garfield with a serious writer like Jared Diamond. Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is a valuable work of historical analysis – a very long essay with examples.
Diamond's point, in that essay, is that when you step back from the particulars of history, you discover that great empires and great civilizations, while they are certainly the product of human choices and human endeavors, only arise in places where there are resources enough to support a sufficient population, with surpluses enough to support a leisure class.
In a way, the point is obvious – I was taught this, more or less, in junior high. But Diamond gives the facts in a way that illuminates and expands our understanding of history....continued on page 2