Book Review: The Map That Changed the World Will Lead You Astray

A section of William Smith’s 1815 map.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the Grey, knowing full well the urgency of their monumental task to rid the world of the ring, decides to take respite from all the hurry so he can have his time to fancy himself a poet. He writes a letter to his little friend Frodo informing him of the dangers lurking ahead – but as is Gandalf’s wont as a wizard, he dazzles his medium with magic and casts a poem. The result is a pop culture classic known to most literati, and its first two lines enjoy the abuse of endless social media mileage:

All that is gold does not glitter

Not all those who wander are lost

To wander around in unfamiliar places is easier these days thanks to technology. When one is hungry in a foreign city, it only takes a few taps and swipes to locate the nearest food stall. One doesn’t need to decipher riddles or poems to understand the situation of one’s travel – the internet can do that for you. For example, while I was treading the cobbled steps of Cambridge’s streets trying to locate St. John’s College for the first time, I took my phone out of my pocket, accessed Google Maps, then entered my desired destination: the app traced the route for me starting from where I was upon the time of query. In a matter of minutes I found myself still wandering where the hell St. John’s College was, but I prayed to him nonetheless for the delicious kebab that was in my hands after coming across an inviting deli.

The point is, maps are essential. They help bridge gaps by identifying the best possible routes between two or more points. Maps also help identify areas of interest otherwise unknown to newcomers. Most importantly, maps help define the world we live in by describing its spatial attributes in a graphical way. It is for the latter reason that early mapmakers set themselves the grandiose task of exploring the world so they can capture every detail of the world’s landscape, so they can measure the height of its mountains, the depth of its seas, the stretch of its deserts, and the dangers of the unknown.

At least that’s what the book I read about maps told me. I got it when I was wandering in a second-hand book shop, lost in the sheer amount of items surrounding me. But this book appeared to my eyes like gold, it wasn’t glittering, but the title was surely enticing. It was a book by Simon Winchester called The Map That Changed the World.

I grabbed the book then charted my way towards the cashier.

Winchester is an accomplished writer whose works even gained the notice of the British royalty. He was elected as an Officer of the British Empire in 2006 for “services to journalism and literature”. His first major commercial success was a 1998 historical romp of how the Oxford English Dictionary was made, titled (retitled to be exact) The Professor and the Madman. In The Map That Changed the World, Winchester once again flexes literary grit, as he dares to tackle another great historical object as his study subject. As the title suggests, The Map That Changed the World takes us back to the early years of cartography and geology with all the intrigues of Victorian Britain. Subject-wise, Winchester is on familiar ground, since he spent his university years studying geology in Oxford.


The book has one major protagonist, William Smith, a man “bent upon the all-encompassing mission of making a geological map of England and Wales.” (p.195) Winchester begins by narrating an infamous event in Smith’s life which was the result of Smith’s brush against the scientific establishment who refused to give him credit, and the financial elite that threw him behind bars for unpaid credits. This sets out the tone of the entire book: the marginal hero whose task “required patience, stoicism, the hide of an elephant, the strength of a thousand and the stamina of an ox” (ibid) surviving against all the odds. It is in this palette that Winchester succeeds and losses at the same time.

Winchester’s strength is the interesting subject he has on hand. The life of William Smith is an unfortunate series of mini-victories and rejection – even made more interesting by the Victorian setting it is historically set against. The mode by which Winchester decides to paint Smith is understandably sympathetic, which also convinces the reader to render affection towards Smith.

But then it gets way off the map.

It is exactly because of this approach and style that Winchester ends up failing to deliver the book’s promise. What the reader gets is a lot less science, but more exercises in marketing; a lot less history, and a whole lot of hyperbole. Hence, it reads more like an ornate obituary than an interesting odds-defying tale of scientific success.

Take for instance passages like these:

“It is a map that laid the foundations of a field that culminated in the works of Charles Darwin.” p.2

“It was a document that was to change the face of science, to create indeed a whole new science, to set in train a series of scientific movements that would lead, eventually, to the inquiries of Charles Darwin, to the birth of evolutionary theory and to the burgeoning of an entirely new way for mankind to view their world and their universe.” p.13

Winchester is not one to shy away from bathing his subjects in the glory of the spotlight – however deserving they are will be a contentious issue for some, but not for Winchester. As shown in the two cited passages, Winchester places Smith in the genealogy of greats that spawned the scientific revolution of the 19th century – the Darwinian revolution – to establish Smith’s own place in the pantheon of scientific giants.

This would work extremely well in the realm of advertising. But since the subject resides in the domain of science, it comes off as a cheap attempt to trace connections. What Winchester does is to raise the map so high to distract people’s eyes from the contributions of the other pioneering geology greats such as James Hutton, Georges Cuvier, and Charles Lyell. These three thinkers, if we are to browse Darwinian biography and historiography, actually have more to do with Darwin’s revolution than Smith. Darwin, for Winchester, is thus just a convenient marketing buzzword.

One is left disappointed if one reads this book looking for an answer on how this map actually changed the world – also how it led to Darwinism. This was actually an interesting and powerful point had Winchester simply realized that constant and sporadic paean and praise are not enough to effectively argue a point. The map Smith made actually paved the way for biostratigraphy – a subject dealt with by Darwin in his 1859 magnum opus On the Origins of Species. But Winchester missed the opportunity to elaborate on this one. What he did instead was spend passages and paragraphs that meandered from the insignificant to the silly. Examples are rife all throughout the book:

“Coke of Holkham, as he was generally known, was a man with initially no practical knowledge of farming – he simply owned farms, placed tenants in them and lived off the rental income. But in 1788 one of his tenants refused to renew his lease, and Coke decided that, rather than let the land lie fallow, he would make an attempt to farm it himself. Since he knew so little he took the radical step of organizing a huge seminar, which he called a Sheep-shearing, and to which all the local farmers, practical men and landowners so that they could inspect his land, crops and livestock, and make recommendations.” p.156

Winchester is also extremely exorbitant with his adjectives when he describes Smith’s work in full condescension:

“It was then, and it remains now, a truly magnificent thing- huge, beautiful, and filled with absorbing and elegantly managed detail. And, by comparison with modern maps of the geology of the country, in the very broadest sense, uncannily right. It is also, as well as being a scientific document without peer, tremendously attractive as a piece of art. It is highly coloured in a way that mimics the colours of the rocks below, such that one can almost imagine that Smith was painting a portrait of the country, with all the foliage and topsoil stripped from it, such that only the rocks remain – green for the chalk, blue for the Lias, and a honey-coloured, orange-hued bright streak of evening sunshine for the outcrop of the Middle Jurassic that he loved so much.” p.222

There are other passages that are of the same breadth and mode. To be fair to Winchester, he did try to explain a bit of the science behind Smith’s map-making journey in one whole chapter (Chapter 11 – A Jurassic Interlude). But the attempt is a scattered mess of vignettes and descriptions of rocks, which at times were amateurish for a writer of Winchester’s stature. Take for instance this passage from the said chapter:

“East Cliff rose up in a great domed cathedral curve, rising from where two small streams had eroded it down to sea-level on its western and eastern ends.” p.174

If one wants a detailed description of how it feels like reading this book, I can offer this analogy: You are a tourist in a foreign country and are strolling around one of its markets with the intent of shopping. You wade your way through the labyrinthine passages that take you from one section to another. There is no map to guide your way, but only a tour guide that doesn’t stop on giving suggestions – segued with non-stop gossip and unnecessary trivia. The first few minutes may have been interesting, but as it goes on, it becomes less and less so and starts to get more annoying and tedious by the second. You end up frustrated not being able to buy anything since the items displayed were pretty much for sale in every other stall – though you’ll see items of interest once in a while, but they are too few against the overall tapestry of blandness. The whole activity was nothing of note – the tour guide barely helped. You simply wasted your time.

And that’s what it’s like to finish this book. A waste of time. The only sense of reward once gets is a false sense of achievement, that one was able to wade through a long confusing maze. But even with that one still feels discontented and frustrated.

Winchester states that Smith was able “to see what others could have seen but never did, to set down on paper what others might have suspected, but never felt confident enough to declare” (p.186), but the way Winchester tells it makes one connect to Smith less as an accomplished and gifted scientist, but more as a Victorian celebrity. Worse, the persistent patronizing tone that permeates paragraph after paragraph makes one even skeptical of Smith’s actual scientific merit.

The missed opportunity to explain the declared scientific continuity from Smith to Darwin is also another frustrating and infuriating feature of the book. Winchester deftly sets up this relationship from the get-go and keeps on mentioning it time and time again without actually going into a full discussion about it. You read page after page eagerly awaiting for Winchester’s argument(s) – but alas, there is none. All those long unnecessary paragraphs could have been better spent explaining this intellectual relationship.

A great irony, that a book about a map will actually get you lost. Even Gandalf would be led amiss. Imagine if Winchester wrote that letter to Frodo. Do you think the little guy would have found the right track to Mordor? I doubt it. For that and everything said previously, I give this book one star out of five. It should have been two stars – but the other star I’d rather keep in the sky, as those things would never lead me astray.

Final rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Should you read it: SCIdon’t


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