History of the World in 12 Maps

This post is about a book, a book review, and the discussion that the review sparked.

As I’ve mentioned before, I review books for Shelf Awareness for Readers. Mostly history, a little reference–and the occasional cookbook because writer does not live by history alone. Some of the books I receive for review are on subjects I’d never think to read on my own.* Others scream my name immediately. Guess which category A History of the World in Twelve Maps fell into?

Here’s my review for Shelf Awareness:

Mapping is a basic instinct, argues Jerry Brotton: humans and animals alike use mapping procedures to locate themselves in space. Map-making, on the other hand– using graphic techniques to share spatial information-is an act of the human imagination. It is never objective; the map is not the territory. And maps of the world are more subjective than most, embodying the worldview of the culture that produced them. In A History of The World in Twelve Maps, Brotton, a British history professor, looks at twelve world maps, the people who created them, and what they tell us about the time and place in which they were made. In the process, he tells the reader a great deal about how we view the world today.

Beginning with Ptolemy’s Geography and ending with the virtual maps of Google Earth, Brotton considers maps and geographical theory from Islamic Sicily and fifteenth century China as well as the more familiar worlds of medieval England and Renaissance Europe. He looks at different approaches to shared questions: how a map is oriented (north is not the universal answer), what scale to use, where the viewer stands in relation to the map and how to project a round earth on a flat surface. Along the way, he considers politics, religion, cosmology, mathematics, imperialism, scientific knowledge, and artistic license. Each map is unique; all have features in common.

A History of the World in Twelve Maps is global history in the most literal sense: twelve variations on a universal theme.

Normally I would simply re-post the review here in the Margins, with proper attribution to Shelf Awareness, and hope that it directed a few more readers to an excellent book. However, this review prompted some interesting responses from readers that I would like to share.

Graham Thatcher wrote to me with an idea about maps and perception, which he has given me permission to share:

…while teaching a persuasion course, I took a National Geographic Mercator map of the world, blocked out the names of countries, and hung it upside down on the board. We had been investigating how our individual “world views” develop and when confronted with an antipodal projection, our literal world view was unrecognizable.

I think this is brilliant and intend to try it as soon as we move into the new house, where I’ll have a bigger office and a bit of wall space.

On a similar note, fellow historian, and long-time co-conspirator, Karin Wetmore sent me the following link to an interesting map/memory/perception project: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/01/what-you-get-when-30-people-draw-a-world-map-from-memory/282901/

What ideas do you have about turning the world–or at least our map of it–upside down?

* Being knocked off my usual paths occasionally is one of the intangible benefits of reviewing.

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