December 9, 2019

Review: A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton

On sale now.

So, you think you know maps? Author and historian Jerry Brotton will show you otherwise. This week’s review takes us through a fascinating trip back through history from an unusual perspective. A History of the World in 12 Maps looks at how we’ve perceived the surface of this planet we inhabit throughout the ages, and how we’ve grappled with depicting it over the millenia. The maps highlighted stretch back from Babylon, Ptolemy and the ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages right up to today’s digital maps. It’s fascinating to think how these maps changed not only our view of the world, but also became points of historical and social contention as well.

The author does a great job of unearthing some little known tidbits of history, as well as giving a great global perspective. I’ll admit, we’ve  traveled to a few historical sites mentioned in the book such as Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, South Korea and completely missed some of these glorious maps. A History of the World in 12 Maps would make a great travel companion for an usual world trek!

Among the maps highlighted are the 13th century Hereford mappamundi, Gerard Mercator’s 1569 map of the world, and many more. Did you know: not all maps historically depicted north at the top? Its fascinating to see how our perception of the world has changed over the ages, and how our own biases were incorporated into something as fundamental but as difficult as map-making. The author also traces the tale of the very first maps to depict and label America, a controversy that has continued right up into the 21st century.

The life and times of the Cassini family is also charted as they struggled to make the first accurate map of France and chart the Paris meridian even as the specter of the French Revolution loomed. Cartographers have struggled over the years with how to depict a spherical globe on a flat surface for centuries, and the colonial ambitions of the 18th and 19th centuries introduced a favoritism still decried by many.  This later led to what became known as the Gall Orthographic Projection of the 1970’s.

Maps played a role in plotting the changing geopolitical landscape of the post-Cold War era, and such spheres of influence were reflected in Orwell’s 1984.

Today’s maps come in interactive layers, showing weather, traffic, shopping destinations and more. Is the rise of Google Maps a good thing, or does it discard traditional cartography for commercialism? The History of the World in 12 Maps not only traces where we’ve come from as a map making species, but where we may be headed. And as ever, a map will not only be a conceptualization of the world around us, but will also feed us information on demographics, politics, and much more…

Or perhaps said map will do nothing more profound than lead us to the nearest shopping mall. Whatever’s the case, be sure to read A History of the World in 12 Maps for a fascinating look at true tales of cartography!


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