The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime – Miles Harvey

Maps have always had a tangible fascination for me. They evoke all the excitement and verve of travel, exploration, discovery, of finding your way in a confusing and sometimes hostile world. Maps are, at their essence, stories, each and everyone. Sometimes the stories are one’s of your own devising. Plan a trip sometime, then after you travel, look back at your maps and retrace the contours of your voyage. The map is subtlely different, after you have travelled the road – and it is never the same for all the parties on that road.

The Island of Lost Maps is an investigation into cartographic crime, tracing the crimes of Gilbert Bland, a man termed “the Al Capone” of map-theft. The book retraces his path of thievery through some of North America’s most eminent rare book library collections and the long, difficult battle to bring him to justice for what many law-enforcement professionals mistakenly viewed as a minor crime (albeit one that netted Bland hundred’s of thousands of dollars. You can bet if he was robbing banks it would have been taken more seriously). The Island of Lost Maps is also a glorious exploration of the history of maps, of map-making, discovery and, in modern times, the collectibles industry, driven equally by map affeciandos and investors seeking riches.

Don’t expect a rip-roaring “true crime” story here, Miles Harvey’s book is a slower, more paced process, drawing you into the world of maps and the get-rich-quick schemes of Gilbert Bland, a maddeningly elusive character who suits his name beautifully. Chock full of fascinating asides and subtopics (many probably worthy of a book on their own), the Island of Lost Maps is intent on weaving a picture, a narrative map of its own, to tell this tale, and for the most part, it is well-told, although if you can look at a map and not wonder if “here be dragons”, then it may not be for you…

Interested in old maps? Check out this site and this site for a look at what the collectors covet…

Map-making can be tough. Here’s the diary of a map-making team…in Antarctica.

Got a GPS? Try out the newest orienteering sport – Geocaching! Take a map though….

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