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A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton

January 30, 2014

A History of the World in Twelve Maps

This book is exactly what it sounds like. So to begin with, I love the title. I saw this book in a bookshop in Melbourne about a year ago and I immediately recognized it as a book I thought I would enjoy. Having read it now, it turns out I  was not wrong. A History of the World in Twelve Maps is a fantastic book! That being said, I don’t think I would recommend it to everyone. This book activated pretty much all of my nerd senses – the history nerd, the cartography nerd, the geography nerd, the science nerd, and the intellectual argument nerd (who doesn’t like hilarious scientific rivalries?). But the book was long and dense. I learned something new on every page, but it was a very long read. If you’re interested in all those things I just mentioned, absolutely read this book, you will love it as much as I did.

Despite being about only 12 maps, there are a lot more maps in this book. I bought the paperback hardcopy (despite reading almost exclusively on the tablet these days) because I wanted to be able to leaf back and forth and thumb through the maps to get excited for what was coming. That was the right choice. This is definitely a book you’ll want in paper copy. There are lots of color maps and lots of black and white maps, and they’re all just so beautiful and interesting I had to find bigger pictures on the internet so I could compulsively look through every tiny detail. They are stunning. The only disadvantage that I will say is present in the paper book form is that, as you learn in the book, most maps are centered on the location they deem most important and the meridian, or focal point of the map is almost always dead in the middle. This becomes a problem when the page division is also right there. I felt like I wasn’t getting the full experience of each of the maps, and I ended up looking them up online to supplement my reading. Just be warned.

The first map of the book isn’t even the first chapter, it’s in the introduction and it’s the first known representation of “the world” by ancient Babylonians. From there the chapters of the book cover (1) Ptolemy in Greece, (2) al-Idrisi and Arabic cartography, (3) Hereford Mappamundi and maps of the Medieval world, (4) The Yu Ji Tu and maps of China and Korea, (5) the Walseemuller map of 1507 and the first maps of America, (6) Ribeiro World Map and territorial claims in Asia, (7) Mercator’s world map and the famous Mercator Projection, (8) Blaeu’s Atlas Maior and the first detailed world atlases, (9) the Cassini survey of France and the first detailed map of a nation, (10) Mackinder’s Natural Seats of Power and the idea of the “heartland”, (11) Arno Peters World Map and why everyone hates Arno Peters, and (12) Google Earth and the most precise maps ever.

Brotton does a terrific job of tying together what is shown in the map and what was happening in the culture that created it at the time of its creation. His thesis throughout the book is that maps are used as a lens through which a culture can be viewed, and a way in which a culture or a cultural movement tries to depict itself. Maps give power and agency to those shown on them, and I was really surprised how much history can really be gleaned from just one map. The way he links everything together and discusses the historical aspects are wonderful and enjoyable.

The best part about this entire book was the new favorite historical figure I found in Sir Halford Mackinder. Mackinder was fascinated with cartography and geography from a very young age and used to give informal lectures to his parents at home, apparently “including one on Australia, which his father praised as ‘delivery good, reception excellent’.” Mackinder went to college, and became increasingly impassioned about the role geography was going to play in world politics, essentially championing the field of geopolitics before anyone else in England. At just 32 years old he helped found the London School of Economics and gave lectures about the impact of geopolitics on economics. He presented some interesting and slightly controversial papers to the Royal Geographic Society, but few people took him really seriously because he was the sort of academic who never did fieldwork, and most of the old blokes at the society were explorers. So Mackinder climbed a mountain. In 1899, when he was 38, he led an expedition and was the first European to climb Mount Kenya. He collected lots of data, mapped a new part of Africa, identified a bunch of new species, and came back with a photograph of him at the summit. Then everyone took him seriously. What a badass! Sir Halford Mackinder, ladies and gentlemen.

This book was full of colorful characters like him, and some pretty awesome cartographic rivalries, when new maps were being published every few months to have the most up-tod-date version. I loved this book! While it felt long and dense, it also almost felt too short. I wasn’t quite ready for it to end and I learned lots of wonderful things.

If you would like to see the maps, they have very small versions of all twelve with small summaries on The Guardian website, although it’s a poor substitute for the fine writing in the actual book. Here’s my favorite map of the twelve: Joan Blaeu’s World Map from the Atlas Maior published in 1664. There’s also a stunningly beautiful print of his 1648 world map in the book as well, but I couldn’t find a picture to do it justice anywhere! Enjoy! (and read this book!)

Joan Blaeu Atlas Maior


From → Non-Fiction

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