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The Island of Lost Maps

January 30, 2012

What’s the most cliched of metaphors in literature? Maps have got to be pretty high on the list. Navigation, explorers, the compass, directions, paths: they’re all part of the language of maps, and almost any story can incorporate the language. And who doesn’t love maps or wandering old paths or finding new horizons?

Miles Harvey knows these metaphors and puts them to pretty good use in his intriguing story about a map thief, his crimes, and their aftermath. Harvey wrote The Island of Lost Maps more than 10 years ago, and some of the references to The Island of Lost Mapstechnology and the economy read a bit stale today. Nevertheless, Harvey’s curiosity about Gilbert Bland, the map thief, is infectious, and along they way he encounters other characters in the quirky world of map collecting.

There’s the supremely confident map and Audubon print buyer at Sotheby’s, the FBI investigator with the “tommy gun laugh,” and lots of rare-book librarians, who aren’t as prim or fusty as you might think. The real character is Bland, though, who, in one of those twists of life, seems to be exactly what his name says he is: bland, unmemorable, easily ignored. And that’s just what he wants, as his thefts happen in full view of most of the librarians and others in the rare book rooms he visits. Hardly anyone remembers him, which is why he’s able to steal priceless maps from 19 libraries, using an Exacto knife to remove the maps from rare books (damaging them sometimes beyond repair), slip them under his sweater, and leave without anyone the wiser.

Harvey’s tale began to wane about two-thirds of the way through, when he suddenly realized his pursuit of the map thief’s story  (he’s a journalist in the mold of Susan Orlean or Tom Wolfe) has become an obsession. This revelation leads to evocative language and nice turns of phrase to describe the soul-searching he does in order to put Gilbert Bland to rest and restore his “normal” life.

The lovely language notwithstanding, I found the history and details about maps and explorers of the Renaissance to be fascinating. The significance of navigation and sailing to business and industry of the time cannot be overstated; in fact, kings and rulers kept tight rein on their cartographers and maps, keeping them both behind lock and key. Not surprisingly, as a consequence, many of the world’s famous explorers were actually thieves of a sort, engaging in intrigue with other countries and mapmakers. Then there’s the bold explorer, John Charles Fremont, called the “Pathfinder,” as if he were Natty Bumppo‘s little brother. Fremont mapped a good deal of the western half of the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War, meeting Kit Carson, traveling the Oregon Trail, discovering Lake Tahoe, and fighting in the Mexican-American War. As Harvey portrays him, Fremont supplies the blueprint (aren’t they sort of like maps?) for Bland’s daring escapades, as he insists on one after another reckless expeditions and journeys.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I find the serendipity and coincidence of my reading habits endlessly delightful. The day after I finished Harvey’s book, I found a story from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in my Facebook feed. It shared one artist’s rare opportunity to view John J. Audubon’s Birds of America in Cornell’s rare books collection. I’m sure no razor blades were allowed!

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3 Comments
  1. Buffy Baker permalink

    Lacterini, I couldn’t find my way past the title…

  2. Hey, you think a map would help?

  3. Buffy Baker permalink

    I don’t know I just feel lost..

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