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Just because there's a wealth of information, doesn't mean that the book is any good
on 29 December 2012
I don't like to write negative reviews of a product, especially books, but I was really struggling to find any redeeming features in A History of the World in Twelve Maps. The book starts with a very wordy introduction that incorporates philosophy, the Classics, theology and different creation myths, etymology and history, as well as a glaring editorial error that should have been spotted way before its publication. In it, the author also offers a few thought-provoking comments, such as "A world view gives rise to a world map; but the world map in turn defines its culture's view of the world. It is an exceptional act of symbiotic alchemy" and "In the act of locating themselves on it, the viewer is at the same moment imaginatively rising above (and outside) it in a transcendent moment of contemplation, beyond time and space, seeing everything from nowhere", but sadly these get swamped by the sheer amount of information Jerry Brotton is trying to get across. The second quote in particular evokes the desire to become immersed in the details of a map, but unfortunately for the reader the publisher has decided to skimp on the reproductions so that the maps getting the Brotton treatment are all grouped together in two sections in the book and are often pitifully reduced to near illegibility. The earliest surviving map from ancient Babylon barely gets a mention and the first chapter, devoted to Ptolemy's Geography, though setting the blueprint for all modern maps by establishing the principles of latitude and longitude and defining geography as a discipline, actually isn't a map at all but a scientific treatise. In examining the Geography, the author loses himself in detail, so that the result reads more like a doctoral thesis, complete with references and Greek terminology, than a book aimed at the general public. There is no narrative structure and it felt as if he was merely listing everything he's ever read about the subject, without consideration for his readership; a proper discussion of Ptolemy's work doesn't start until 20+ pages into the chapter, and even then I found it extremely difficult to take on board his conclusions, as I was being bombarded with fact after fact and was suffering from information overload. Surely a writer of good non-fiction books must not only know what to include and how to present the information to the reader to best advantage, but also what to leave out; sadly, this is not the case here. His chapter on the Hereford mappamundi fared slightly better, but again the author made the mistake of indiscriminately listing snippets of history, theology and the Classics, therefore turning the usual enjoyment of reading and learning into a chore. As a result, I decided to give up on reading the other chapters in this substantial book, unable to face the remaining 400 or so pages in it. This resignation is the more annoying because I feel that with its chosen title, the publisher inevitably invites comparison with Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects and loses out in both the quality of the writing and the reproductions of the artefacts. That's a real shame, as the subject has great potential, but unfortunately the book fails to live up to its promise.