Jim Perrin finds a book that he thinks would have pride of place on any map-lover’s bookshelf

It’s a safe bet to assume that the subject of maps will be of interest to any regular outdoor enthusiast. I’ve been fascinated by them since childhood. Even when I was six or seven I used to love the crude diagrammatic ones that came in editions of Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson or The Coral Island. When it came to Tarka the Otter as an eight-year-old, I went to the library to find out about the topography of the “country of the two rivers”. My father’s half-inch, hill-shaded Bartholomew’s maps to The Peak and to North Wales entranced me. At the age of 12 the OS Seventh Series 1:63,360 sheets – unsurpassable masterpieces of cartographic design! – were companion and guide to my earliest hill journeys. Few books could compete with their wealth of detail and information, or the graphic sense of place that they evoked, the travels they offered to the imagination.
I imagined, having become fairly competent over decades at reading maps, that I knew something about their history.
I’d even had to read up fairly recently on surveying for a book on the 1930s Himalayan explorations of Eric Shipton and H.W. Tilman. So if you’d asked me how much I knew of map history I’d probably have been complacently confident in my response. Or would have been until the morning a courier had me sign for a large parcel that I opened to find a Folio Society reprint of New York Times journalist John Noble Wilford’s magisterial, exhaustive history, The Mapmakers. This first appeared in 1981, has subsequently been through two revisions, and now appears in an exquisite Folio Society slip-cased volume, lavishly illustrated and beautifully printed and bound, that gives paroxysms of pleasure from the mere handling of it.
Wilford’s book examines cartography from Classical times to the Space Age. Having excitedly worked my way through its dense and riveting nigh-on-500-pages, let me tell you that I knew nothing, and that reading through this opulent feast of many courses has been an unexpected delight! If you want an absorbing gi for a loved one, look no further – anyone would be delighted to receive this fascinating and authoritative tome. I’d recently read Andrea Wulf’s acclaimed biography of the explorer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt (The Invention of Nature) which covers some of the same areas as The Mapmakers and is gushing and affected by comparison.
Wilford, unlike Wulf, knows his subject through and through from long years of engagement in the field, in the press-room and in the library. The account he gives us is plainly authoritative, written in a lucid, vigorous style free of literary strivings that enables him throughout to be true to his subject. He also constructs his historical narrative with remarkable skill, each of the four parts of his book taking off from an incident in his involvement with Bradford Washburn’s mapping of the Grand Canyon in the 1970s. This personal alliance to a great cartographic project gives him the sympathetic understanding through which he relays to us the ongoing marvel which is the mapping of worlds.
All the great stories are told here in exhaustive detail, from Columbus and Magellan, Cook and Vancouver, Lewis and Clark by way of Kinthup, Nain Singh and the Pundit scouts to the Apollo and Mariner space probes – a whole history of humanity’s involvement in mapping the Universe, the motivation of which tugs at the heart-strings of Wilford’s own experience: “At Dana Butte, on untrodden ground that hot afternoon in June, we sensed the beginnings of wonder and of cartography. We came away knowing the ageless compulsion to reach out and, through mapping’s ever-widening embrace of worlds, to reduce wonder to a scale more susceptible of human comprehension.”
In that aim The Mapmakers succeeds marvellously – it will have pride of place on any map-lover’s bookshelf.