Though the project got off to a flying start, it quickly began to sputter. First came World War I; later in the century there were more conflicts and threats of wars, depressions, revolutions, and persistent outbreaks of the kind of poverty that discouraged many poorer nations from putting mapmaking at the top of their national agendas. The rulers in places like Bamako and scores of other impoverished capitals would exasperatedly declare that it was far better to have the people of Mali fed, say, than to have the luxury of IMW maps made showing the suburbs of Timbuktu lettered in a Paris-dictated typestyle.
By the time the United Nations got hold of the project in the 1980s, only about 800 sheets had been completed — meaning that after 70 years of trying, a staggering 1,600 still remained to be done. So it was perhaps inevitable that at a sad little meeting in Bangkok — at a time when the paper-map-destroying satellite navigation monster first started to wave its tentacles from over the horizon — it was finally agreed to abandon the project. A few libraries now have such of the set as exists — sheets that are filed away, largely unconsulted, in elegant oak cabinets. They are things of great beauty and usefulness — testimony to gentler times in the half-forgotten world of historical cartography.
This melancholy saga does not, however, make it into Simon Garfield’s highly entertaining peek into the mysteries of the mapmaking world — and more’s the pity, not least because it is far from the only well-known tale he manages to leave out. He tells us a lot about classic mapmakers such as Willem Blaeu, Jodocus Hondius and Martin Waldseemueller (who first put the word “America” on a map, though in the middle of Uruguay). He relates the well-worn driving-into-lakes shortcomings of GPS. He gives plenty of references to maps in popular films (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Metropolis”). And he adores (as do most) Harry Beck’s iconic map of the London underground — although he surprisingly allows the book’s index-maker to leave Beck’s hallowed name out.
And while that is mere publishing slapdashery — regrettably more common nowadays than formerly — the omission of a major cartographic enterprise such as the IMW, from a work that is supposed to be some kind of a vade mecum is a more serious affair, verging on the unforgivable.
Still, were this the only major mapmaking enterprise to be overlooked, Garfield’s would be an excellent and nicely turned guide to the amusing intricacies of the mapping world. But it isn’t — other cartographic stories that would have benefited considerably from the light touch that we know (from his earlier book on typefaces, “Just My Type”) to be Garfield’s stock in trade are, surprisingly and dismayingly, not there.