Interview: Simon Garfield, Author Of 'On The Map' On the Map author Simon Garfield speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep about the history of maps, how they can be used as political tools, and how GPS and modern mapping applications are changing the way we see ourselves and our place in the world.
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Mapping A History Of The World, And Our Place In It

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Mapping A History Of The World, And Our Place In It

Mapping A History Of The World, And Our Place In It

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Let's just say right up front that the author Simon Garfield loves maps. Many hang on the walls of his home in London. His house in fact is filled with them. And so is his latest book, "On the Map." He studies the history of maps and their effect on human progress. Mr. Garfield's map obsession began when he was a boy and discovered the famous map of the Tube, the London subway.

SIMON GARFIELD: What's sort of extraordinary about it, it's sort of the most reproduced, geographically inaccurate map that you could find. So it looks as though every stop on the Tube is about a mile apart. But in fact they vary from, you know, a few hundred yards to kind of four or five miles. And so it creates a very kind of neat picture of London. If you're a tourist, you arrive, and the first time you think, this is going to be so easy.

It's only when you actually get out of the underground you realize it's not so easy. But, I mean, when I looked at the map for the first time, the places at the end of the line, at the end of the Metropolitan line or the Piccadilly line, seemed to me the most exotic places you could ever go in the world. They were like sort of my Antarctica, I suppose, in a way. And so really, ever since then, I've been really fascinated by maps.

INSKEEP: There is something, as you point out in the book, about a map that makes you want to travel, makes you want to go to whatever is pictured there.

GARFIELD: I think the great appeal to me is not only the fact that you can plan and you can dream and you're almost there, by looking at the maps, you're sort of almost there. But the other great appeal, really, is how it sort of relates to our history, you know, how it sort of tells our kind of human tales.

INSKEEP: And that brings us to the other point because you mentioned inaccuracies, deliberate inaccuracies in the London underground map. In going through your history of maps here, I notice you frequently use the word distortion. The maps are distorted, sometimes unintentionally, but sometimes quite intentionally because whoever is drawing the map has a purpose in mind.

GARFIELD: Exactly. I mean, maps, as you say, they are political, carry great kind of untruths. The biggest distortion of all, I suppose, is, you know, the famous sort of Mercator map from the 16th century, which we still use now. You know, that is the traditional map that you have on your classroom wall.

INSKEEP: Let's describe that to make sure that people can picture it. This is the map where the latitudinal lines, instead of coming together like they would at the top of the earth, it's flat and so they are parallel and so everything becomes huge near the North and South Poles, like Greenland is immense. Canada is ridiculously large.

GARFIELD: Exactly right. So Greenland is shown, you know, as the size of Africa, which Africa is 10 times or more larger than Greenland. You know, the other point is that it's a bit like the famous phrase that history is written by the winners, by the victors. And it's the same with mapmakers. If you have the power to commission a map or make your own map, you're going to make it reflect your world and reflect your views.

So that could be, you know, if you had a strong Christian worldview, you would put Jerusalem in the middle of the map. In ancient Greece, you would go right back and it would be Rhodes, you know, the island of Rhodes, you know, off Greece, which is now what you would regard mostly as a kind of holiday island. And it absolutely relies on tourism and not much else. But, you know, in ancient Greece, it was the center of world maps because it was such a, you know, a big economic center of trade and port.

It tells you a lot about kind of world history, how we saw ourselves. That's the wonderful thing really about old maps, is - well, obviously, you realize how the world has changed, but you realize, you know, how we place ourselves upon it when the map was drawn.

INSKEEP: So these maps aren't just describing what's there. They're describing a point of view about what is there. Is there a map in your study of the history of maps that you would regard as actually evil?

GARFIELD: Well, I suppose I have a kind of interesting thought on that really, is that I quite like inaccuracies. I quite like things that aren't quite right, really. I mean, you don't want to be a sailor on a boat trying to get to a particular place and have a map that's wrong, but you also kind of say, well, actually this is how we make a lot of our discoveries, you know.

I mean, you could say, you could argue that one of the principle maps, without doubt, that Columbus used was drawn up hundreds of years before, the great library of Alexandria by Claudius Ptolemy and although he modeled his maps very much from scientific principles, using information from navigators and from other previous scholars. He just got things wrong as well.

So I don't think you'd regard him as kind of evil 'cause I think he was actually on sort of best intentions, but he did just kind of make things up and that's sort of the other - one other fact with the kind of history of maps is sort of how much we abhor a blank space on a map, you know. We kind of hate that because it suggests ignorance and it suggests that we're not in control somehow.

So, you know, he got the whole kind of latitude wrong of where Asia was on the maps, which is why Columbus found America and didn't get to his riches in, you know, Japan and the Indies.

INSKEEP: Oh, 'cause he thought it was just a short hop across to Japan.

GARFIELD: Exactly. He thought that the journey would be a third of the one that he actually had to do to get to Japan, which is why he hit South America instead.

INSKEEP: OK. So now we're in an age of satellite mapping, of GPS. Are we better off?

GARFIELD: Well, I fall into two camps here. I use, you know, my maps on my phone. And it's far easier to put my GPS on than to have to consult a map. But gosh, I mean, do we lose a lot. We lose, you know, the beauty of maps. We lose the romance of maps. We lose that terrible feeling that we'll never be able to fold up a map again.

And I think the other thing, you know, we lose is a real sense of how big the world is. Because now we look at our maps and there's a real sense of, OK, get me to where I want to go, you know. Now, you get the feeling, actually, it's all about me,

INSKEEP: Oh, because if I look at a GPS map, there's a dot where I am and that's the middle of everything no matter what else happens.

GARFIELD: Exactly. It's a terribly sort of egocentric way of looking at the world. So I think the view of where we are in the world, in the history of the world, is changing. And I think in a way it's one of the biggest, if not the biggest impact of the digital and technological revolution; is how we see ourselves in the world. And in a way that was the idea of the book, to kind of look back and tell these great tales and to think about what we might be losing in the process of accepting all these extremely good and generally very accurate maps of the world on our phones.

INSKEEP: Simon Garfield is the author of "On the Map." Thanks very much.

GARFIELD: I enjoyed it.

INSKEEP: We're glad that we're on your map, your mental map anyway, thanks to your public radio station, which brings you MORNING EDITION. We're also on your social media map. If you'd like, you can find us on Facebook. We're also on Twitter. Got many handles there, including @MorningEdition@NPRGreene and @NPRInskeep.

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