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Mapping the World: A Review

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One of the books recently received at the Map Division is Mapping the world: Stories of Geography by Caroline & Martine Laffon. Even in a pile of other impressive acquisitions, the book is hard to miss. A perfect example of “judging a book by its cover,” the entire work is aesthetically pleasing, with stunning images of maps created in places and cultures around the world.

Mapping the world is a history of cartography with a philosophical twist. It does not aim for a linear description of the development of cartography, but the authors look at maps and their creators within the broader context of the history of thought. Consequently, maps are perceived as possible answers to fundamental questions of humanity, such as beliefs about creation and cosmology, the depiction of imaginary or holy places, or more pragmatic matters such as travel and trade routes, battle plans, and the promises of the New World.

Along with the more familiar images of world maps and nautical charts, one can find a Native American map depicting tribes living in South Carolina; details of landscapes in Canada and the Himalayas; a tapestry representing the city of Srinigar in the Kashmir Valley; and a Mexican map of rivers. The text runs almost parallel to the images, often matching them visually but not necessarily describing the maps. The authors do not claim to give definitive solutions to the issues they address. Instead, they seem content to ask some important questions, and let the maps provide their own answers to the reader.

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