Before we moved to Seattle, when we were visiting Seattle only about once per year, one of my obligatory stops was Metzger’s Maps, a store that sells all kinds of maps and map-related products. Street maps, highway maps, historical maps, globes, topographical maps, satellite photos, atlases, travel books with maps included, magnifiers, transparent rulers, … I loved that store, and I love maps. I can spend many hours poring over a Tokyo subway map, or a map of Paris, or an atlas now long out of date, or a map of an imaginary place, or an imagined map of a real place.

So when I saw Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations, I thought I was in for a real treat. A history of maps! An analysis in historical context of maps through history, showing how they represent not only places and geography and politics, but also serve to put forward a point of view, an agenda. This book should have been a delight. Somehow, though, Vincent Virga managed to write a boring and discursive book about maps or, rather, a boring and discursive book in which maps serve merely as foil and backdrop to another agenda.

Nothing could have rescued this book, but there are some obvious problems with the design and layout that would have made it at least tolerable. There are, to its credit, maps on nearly every page. But each map is accompanied by just a short description intended, I think, to link back to the surrounding ocean of text. Much better would have been to have a sidebar discussion of each map, set off with contrasting background color, perhaps, or a border, clearly linked to that map. Instead, the book simply refers to the map by plate number, and the map itself is seldom described in any detail but is simply used as an exemplar of some more general point that the author is trying to make.

Virga had the entire resources of the Library of Congress at his disposal. I found myself wondering whether the maps he selected were really the best available. I wondered whether Virga even likes maps, whether he enjoys them for their own sake.

There were so many missed opportunities in this book. There were some ancient maps, among the first maps created in a number of ancient civilizations. In some cases they are nearly incomprehensible, serving as a reminder that maps require interpretation, that they are an abstraction representing particular ways of viewing the world. And if those world views are distant enough from our own, the map itself can serve as a kind of meta-map into the thought processes of the culture in which the map was created. But to gain that understanding itself requires interpretation, which Virga fails to do.

Besides the dismal failure to properly treat the maps that he selected for this book, it is also instructive to think about the maps that he omitted. For example, it would have been useful and interesting to consider modern computer-generated maps of the internet. He does show a highly stylized map of major interconnects around the globe, but he completely ignores the many excellent recent examples of clever ways to represent dense networks. Similarly he offers no treatment whatsoever of maps whose region-sizes are proportional to some demographic measure, heat-maps, mind-maps, or any of the recent visualization methods that can be considered as maps.

This book is a disappointment.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations
  • Author: Vincent Virga
  • Published: 2007
  • ISBN: 0316997668
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 2.0 stars