Book Review: How to Lie with Maps
July 04, 2022
I read this book as part of my research for a forthcoming edition of my Bizarre Fact Files series. The book is a well-written, deep exploration into the techniques and politics of cartography. By the time I finished this technical exploration — learning about things I didn’t even know existed — my perspective on mapping was forever changed.
Yes, I said the politics of mapping. As this book makes clear, every map is a political statement. Maps represent reality, but are not of reality. And the power to define reality lies with the person holding the pen.
Although I didn’t see it referred to in the book, I feel obligated to also mention Alfred Korzybski’s meditations that “the map is not the territory.”
One of my favorite chapters, “Data Maps: A thicket of thorny choices” should be required reading for every social scientist, if not citizen voter, for its clear discussion of how aggregation, homogeneity, and other choices make it easy to distort “data.” Keep this in mind the next time you see a purported map of crime levels, real estate values, or other “facts” superimposed on an areal map. (The author’s book Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences promises even more about this important topic.)
There were numerous tidbits that caught my attention. A few examples:
- Deliberate blunders, “trap streets” are non-existent features placed on maps to catch copyists. But this common practice died off in 1997 after a court ruled that even imaginary streets are “facts” and can’t be copyrighted. (What the hell‽)
- Souvenir, a typeface used for map labels by the US Geographic Survey, is an abomination in the context of mapping. The author makes a compelling case for how it ruins cartographic features with its heavy-handed and ugly typography.
- Commercial placements on maps eschew important cartographic features (such as elevation, and topography) in favor of paid inclusions. This renders the maps useless for functions such as emergency management and national defense, but makes them handy for shopping.
- Online mapping, covertly paid for by commercial placements, has forever changed the expectations, style, and quality of maps for the public. In Europe, bookstores still carry high-quality regional maps, but good luck finding them in the United States. (Younger readers might be surprised to learn that gas stations used to give away printed maps to customers!)
- Placenames, those words which define a location or area, are often just accepted as being true, but in reality they can reflect bias and politics. Traditionally, mapmakers have accepted local vernacular, but that leads to codifying some odd, and often racist, stereotypes. The author has a separate book about this topic, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame.
How to Lie with Maps, published by the venerable University of Chicago Press, is not a casual read. But for an outsider such as myself, it was fascinating and insightful. The author, Mark Monmonier, has several related titles, as well as a rich website that will take you deep into a delightful rabbit hole. To get your copy of this book, try the Amazon.
Imaginary streets are “facts” and can’t be copyrighted‽‽‽
Posted by: Craig Conley | July 04, 2022 at 01:40 PM
I know, it's so strange. For details see the "legal" section of the Wikipedia entry for Trap Street: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trap_street
Posted by: Gordon Meyer | July 04, 2022 at 03:18 PM