I recall first finding this book on my brother’s shelf while he was away at college. I had often gotten kicks out of rummaging through his possessions in those days—stealing change from his jar and baseball cards from his boxes—but looking back, I don’t think any of my other youthful mischief has paid off as well as when I grabbed this book without asking. By that age, I had already enjoyed books like Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, so non-fiction travel-adventure had already found a warm place in my heart. But the attentive student in me was just beginning to form, so this single book introduced me to what has now long been my favorite genre. Though “general interest non-fiction” might be a correct name for this genre, I prefer to call it “the biography of things,” which in this case would entail “the biography of cartography.”
As I devoured this book, I was blown away by how fascinating history could be. Not many of my teenage friends at the time salivated while imagining the founding of new worlds and passages, but I did. Though I had never before taken interest in old maps or known the names of map-makers, I suddenly found myself perking up whenever I heard the name an ancient sailor or saw a particular coastline on paper. The research that went into this book must have been extensive, and I actually pictured myself browsing through musty old libraries in search of those key nuggets of information that could turn a decent story-of-interest into a fascinating page-turner. So whoever Miles Harvey is, I’d like to thank him for turning the light on for me.
The story behind of The Island of Lost Maps follows the seemingly innocent crime spree of Gilbert Bland who defaced a number of priceless antique books in order to build his collection of unique and rare maps of the ancient world. Looking back, I sort of wish Harvey had not divulged Bland’s fate so early on. Knowing that Bland would eventually be caught and “convicted” hurt the suspense that this caper could have offered. I think it was Barbara Tuchman who had recommended that writers of history ought to avoid the “flash-forward,” so as to give the reader the suspenseful feeling of being on-scene himself. No huge matter. Although it lacked the suspense promised on the book’s cover, the story was still immensely interesting. I found it particularly ironic that Bland, a quiet man who dreamed of anonymity, had virtually every detail of his life laid bare in this book, all because of his insatiable desire to add a little colored piece of paper to his private collection.
It’s been a long time since I read this book, but it still holds a special place in my library. Actually, come to think of it, it’s probably about time I give it back to my brother.