Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Drawing of History

The Merriam Webster dictionary’s first definition of a map is:  a picture or chart that shows the rivers, mountains, streets, etc., in a particular area. Basically its a drawing that tells us the relationship of one place to another.  It answers our questions:  How far is New York from San Francisco.  What countries are adjacent to China, Chile or Croatia.

But a map can be much more than that.  According to Jerry Brotton whose book Projecting Power:  A History of the World in 12 Maps,  a map is much more.  They are documents  that “allow the armchair traveler to road the world, the diplomat to argue his points, the ruler to administer his country, the warrior to plan his campaigns, the propagandist to boost his cause.”   It’s intriguing to think of a piece of paper, a lovely drawing, as a way to understand how people viewed their world and what we think now. (For more details check Herrick Bering’s book review at

To learn more about our world through maps read Maphead : Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings.  This delightful book tells us as much about the people who collect and create maps as it does about history through maps.  

Just as we can learn about history through the book A History of the World in Six Glasses so too can we learn from maps.  They  help us answer the questions:  Why do they do that?  What’s their story?   The precise and beautiful illustrations of a map can give us a new way to understand the people we know today.

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