Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime - Miles Harrvey (book review)

Note:  This review was originally posted on Epinions.  It has been modified slightly.

The joke goes that men don’t like asking for directions. One commercial even went so far as to suggest that men don’t even really know what maps are for. It might surprise most people that Gilbert Bland went so far as to actually steal them. Miles Harvey started following the story when he wrote a newspaper article about it. In the book, Harvey expands on the story, including a lot of information on why maps are so valuable. Every so often, he’ll come back to Bland. The detailed information is meant to show why what he did is much worse than most people make it out to be.

Gilbert Bland made his criminal career by removing maps from volumes that were stored in libraries. At the start of the book, Harvey points out that really only librarians and map collectors were pretty much the only ones that cared. Map thieves know that the odds of being caught are pretty low and the odds of receiving any punishment are even lower.  Many libraries hadn’t even been willing to admit that he had stolen from them. In those jurisdictions where Bland did stand trial, it seemed that only one had a judge that was willing to throw the book at him and even then, there wasn’t much that the judge could do in the way of punishment.

You may be asking how Bland even got away with stealing maps. All he needed was a sharp edge, like a razor blade, and a list of which maps to steal. Once Bland had the maps he wanted, he’d put them in a jacket and simply walk off. Few people thought to look at him. Bland was described as having a very generic look. The only reason that anyone caught on to him was that he made the mistake of leaving a notebook behind. (In the notebook was a list of the maps he was looking for and the libraries where he was expecting to find them.)

I almost didn’t read all the way to the end. As I said before, most of the book deals with stories on why maps are so valuable and the trouble that a lot of people went through to explore areas and draw up the maps. There’s one part of the book dealing with modern map companies and the methods they use to tell when another company is illegally using their maps. (Apparently, modern espionage does still involve maps.)

It seemed like the book suffered from the same fate as many Saturday Night Live skits that were made into movies: It was hard to take something that started out as small as a newspaper article and make it into something as big as a book. However, by the end of the book, I was interested in what Harvey had to say. Much of the information is very interesting.

It’s hard to say that anyone would be interested in this. I can see a lot of people simply dismissing it as just some book about maps and never giving it a second thought. Even if you have an interest in criminology, I don’t know that you could necessarily read through the entire thing without losing interest. The truth is that the only reason I got it was that the book was selling for $2.99. Had it been at its full price, I probably would have simply dismissed it as just some book about maps and never given it a second thought.

The book is worth four stars. If you can make it all the way through to the end, you won’t be disappointed. 

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