cover image A History of the World in 12 Maps

A History of the World in 12 Maps

Jerry Brotton. Viking, $40 (544p) ISBN 978-0-670-02339-4

In an era when Google Maps is regarded as a standard convenience, this history of 12 epoch-defining maps—including Google’s—is a revelation. Renaissance scholar Brotton examines a cross-cultural sampling of historic world maps, exploring them as representations of both the Earth, and of the philosophical mores of the cultures that produced them. The maps range in function from the “practical maintenance of empire” to the spiritual concerns of uniting “the earth and the heavens in a harmonious, universal whole.” Each simultaneously represents a geographical survey, an aesthetic achievement, technological progress, theological instruction, and political demarcation. These multiple functions are mirrored in the structure of the book, which reflects political, philosophical, and cultural development. The maps are about humanity’s changing relationship with itself, others, the Earth, and the heavens, and this broad scope makes for rich reading. Ultimately, the unifying function of each map is to “rise above the earth” and see with a “divine perspective,” and Brotton offers an excellent guide to understanding these influential attempts at psychogeographical transcendence. Of course, each historic map, despite the cartographer’s efforts, contained inaccuracies, necessitating revisions—a humbling lesson for our current information-dense age. Maps. (Nov.)