Maps are flattened, reduced, generalised and sometimes explained but always culturally constructed depictions of the surface of the Earth or a part thereof. Although there is little doubt that maps, at their best, are condensed graphic expressions of the prevailing zeitgeist, some writers playfully or seriously suggest that there are maps that changed the course of history on a regional or even global scale.
Following the trends in British map historiography from distant Texas, one notices not only the interest in this almost-Shakespearean question but also a current (in the double sense of the word) of an overspill of popular culture's quest to rank the perceived influences of individual maps.
Charmingly, this comes with a patriotic flavour, too, whether intentional or as an implicit afterglow of Britain's once-splendid isolation. To name but a few, there are Jeremy Harwood's To the Ends of the Earth: 100 Maps that Changed the World (2006); a Daily Mail article of 2010 headlined "Ten of the greatest: Maps that changed the world" by Peter Barber of the British Library, writing on a major exhibition; and, in the ultimate ranking of importance, Simon Winchester's 2001 book The Map that Changed the World - which refers, of course, to a lavishly coloured map from 1815 of the UK's geology.
Probably encouraged by his publisher, Jerry Brotton, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, and presenter of a recent BBC Four series on maps, has packaged this 500-plus-page book to ride this tide. Besides a too-brief introduction and conclusion, the book is organised more as a collection of 12 loosely related essays than as a thoroughgoing narrative. It is an inspiring read for an aspiring reader who is beyond being a map greenhorn, not overburdened with too many or too long endnotes but just enough to still qualify as a scholarly product. Given Brotton's expertise, it is not surprising that about half the book is devoted to the contextualisation of five important early modern European maps. The remainder discusses maps from antiquity to the contemporary. A few maps from non-European cultures help the work steer clear of allegations of old-school Eurocentric historiography.
The selection includes some of the "usual culprits": Muhammad al-Idrisi's infusion of what the Arabs salvaged and advanced from antique geographic knowledge into medieval Europe as of 1154; the cartographic christening of America in Martin Waldseemuller's world map of 1507 - which, to stay in character, ranked number one as the most expensive acquisition ever when bought by the Library of Congress in 2003 for $10 million; and the digital age's revolutionary reinvention of hitherto static two-dimensional map images in Google Earth as of 2012. Only five of the maps and their contextualisations are unexpected additions to the mix, but not arbitrary ones, since each merits the entry as ambassador of its era and culture, from the Korean worldview detailed in the Kangnido map of 1402 to Arno Peters' overly politically correct revisionist map projection of 1973.
At first glance, it is a pleasant surprise that the book, although no general history of cartography, contains much more than just the 12 maps. In fact, it boasts 36 black-and-white figures throughout its pages, helping the reader to visualise the (at times) rather technical and disorientating detailed text, and 56 colour illustrations on plates to provide a glimpse of the "twelve apostles" and their intellectual environments. However, a few of the figures and most of the illustrations are printed so embarrassingly small and occasionally blurred (as with the Kangnido map) that they are unreadable: a 10in x 6in reproduction of Waldseemuller's detailed world map, which in reality is 10 times bigger (at about 98in x 54in), without any enlarged sections, is an insult to the reader. It might well be that this is the fault of publishers who, all too often, are unaccustomed to cartographic themes. They want glitz but shy away from investing in adequate map reproductions, which can be reduced in size but only as long as quality and readability are maintained. Or would it be acceptable to publish van Gogh's paintings in stamp size, and as seen through an opaque glass?
In summary, the book is not the but a history of the world. Nevertheless, it proves, through the lenses of world maps, Brotton's argument: "The idea of the world may be common to all societies; but different societies have very different ideas of the world and how it should be represented."
A History of the World in Twelve Maps
By Jerry Brotton
Allen Lane, 544pp, £30.00
Published 6 September 2012