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The Mapmakers

It is hard for me to imagine a time when I did not know what the outlines of the states looked like, or the outlines of any states, in other countries. I have always been familiar with what the surface of the moon looks like, both through my own observations as well as pictures in books that have been available to me since I was young. It’s hard, then, to imagine a time when the way the world looked was not known, when in fact there was still uncharted territory, where maps ended.

Wilford has created a wonderful though somewhat dense history of mapmaking. Along with it, he has also created a history of knowledge, or a history of “what we know and what we need to know.” He starts off with the earliest maps -- the TO format where the earth was represented as a circle split by two large rivers into three sections -- and continues until he is describing the satellite mapping of the surface of Mars. Along the way he explains and illustrates not only what is going on, but what is driving these people forward. He discusses projections [with great illustrations] and longitude and minute technological advancements that drove more and more people to try to determine what was “out there.” Since the book is so well researched, and Wilford obviously delights in his topic, it can be a bit slow going; I think I have been reading this book on and off for the better part of six weeks. However, once you reach the end where surveying is done with handheld GPS units and the last rivers and icebergs on the face of the planet have been put in their proper places, you definitely have not only a sense of accomplishment but a feeling of being well-versed in an entire body of knowledge, which is a good feeling to have.