Could You Show Me on a Map? | The Reader’s Shelf, July 2013

With the advent of modern technologies like Google Maps and GPS devices, it is easy to take for granted how effortless it is to navigate from point A to point B with the touch of a button. Still, there are people who choose to get lost in the beauty of an atlas or enjoy going on adventures of imagination by tracing lines on a map.

Ken Jennings became a hero of trivia nerds with his record-breaking run on the game show Jeopardy! But he is also a map geek. In the enlightening and hugely entertaining Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks (Scribner. 2012. ISBN 9781439167182. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781439167199), Jennings delves into the history and culture of cartography, from witnessing pint-sized map geniuses at the National Geography Bee to exploring the Library of Congress’s astonishing map collection and chatting up hard-core “geogeeks” at the London Map Fair.

In 1988, before GPS technology was available, Tania Aebi became the first American woman and the youngest person to circumnavigate the world alone in a sailboat. When Aebi was an aimless 18-year-old teen, her father challenged her: he’d buy her a sailboat in which to sail solo around the world if she promised to write about her adventure. Maiden Voyage (Ballantine. o.p. but widely held; ebk. ISBN 9781476711607) follows Aebi’s two-and-a-half-year journey, armed with a sextant and kept company by a cat. As she literally learns the ropes on the job, Aebi leads readers on an undertaking filled with danger, love, and the kindness of strangers.

If it weren’t for John Harrison, Aebi’s journey would have been more difficult, if not impossible. From the earliest days of navigation, “the longitude problem” vexed scientists and explorers, as sailors got lost as soon as land was no longer visible on the horizon. In the 18th century, England offered a reward to anyone who could solve the dilemma. Clockmaker Harrison created a timepiece that would keep precise time at sea. Dava Sobel’s engrossing Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time (Walker. 2007. ISBN 9780802715296. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9780802799654) profiles this creative man who solved a problem that even Newton and Galileo couldn’t crack.

Bursting onto the Spanish literary scene in 1993, Belén Gopegui’s debut La escala de los mapas was hailed as a literary masterpiece. Beautifully translated by Mark Schafer, The Scale of Maps (City Lights. 2011. ISBN 9780872865105. pap. $14.95) is the story of Sergio Prim, a shy middle-aged geographer who falls for a passionate and enchanting mapmaker named Brezo. Although maps are essentially about relationships, Sergio prefers to retreat to a solitary space of comfort that he refers to as a “hollow.” That the beautiful Brezo may fill the “hollow” in Sergio’s heart causes him to go on an existential quest to examine love.

Christopher Priest gained attention when his magic trick of a novel, The Prestige, was made into an acclaimed film. In The Islanders (Gollancz. 2012. ISBN 9780575078192. pap. $24.95), Priest turns a different trick: creating a travelog and history of the Dream Archipelago. The locations of these islands seem to shift, and they may have different names depending on who is talking. Masquerading as a travel guide, the narrative features characters whose stories emerge from the surroundings—a mime is murdered, an artist creates a tunnel through a mountain, a reclusive writer hides a dark secret. Attentive readers will be rewarded by Priest’s inventive puzzle in which differing realities overlap and nothing is as it seems.

Growing up in East Germany, Judith Schalansky learned about the world from poring over atlases. Her gorgeous Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have Never Set Foot On and Never Will (Penguin Group [USA]. 2010. ISBN 9780143118206. $30) treats each of her subjects to a full-page map and a page of accompanying text. But that is where the similarity with formal reference atlases ends. Schalansky believes in blending cartography with literature, and the tales for each island are fascinating, weird, disturbing, and often beautiful.

Simon Garfield explores the wonders of cartography in his splendid and rambling On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (Gotham: Penguin Group [USA]. 2012. ISBN 9781592407798. $27.50; ebk. ISBN 9781101606575), covering the early work of the Greeks and the role of the famed Library of Alexandria, medieval maps, the early pocket and road maps of travelers, and the advances in GPS technology. The author’s foray, filled with an addictive sense of humor, a light touch, and plenty of fun and fancy, is sure to inspire many to look at maps far more closely.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at


  1. Kate says:

    Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey and You are Here by Katharine Harmon are also entertaining.

    • Neal says:

      Hi Kate,

      Those are great choices as well. I also like George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps by Barnet Schecter.
      Happy reading – Neal