First the good: there’s lots of neat info in this book about antique map collecting and about the history of maps in general. Anyone with a passing interest in maps will find that the The Island of Lost Maps contains a number of absorbing digressions about adventurous mapmakers from centuries ago. Miles Harvey’s book also, however, bills itself as an account of the crimes and ultimate downfall of map thief Gilbert Bland. As Harvey writes early on in the book, Bland never agreed to talk to him, and the crimes themselves, while interesting, are not compelling enough to carry the 400-some pages that it takes Harvey to tell the story. The book is a 15 page magazine article enveloped in hundreds of pages of discursions and asides about various cartographic topics as well as a great deal of melodramatic meta-narration about Harvey’s efforts to tell Bland’s story:
I was trying to map the life of a man – an anonymous and elusive man, a man I did not know, and a man who demonstrated no desire to meet me. And even all that might not have been so bad if I had somehow been able to find a way inside his head, to put myself in his shoes. But Bland and I were very different people. Other than a few shared superficialities – both of us white males, both right-handers, both map lovers – our common frames of reference were few.
It’s as though Harvey, realizing that he is devoting a tremendous amount of writerly energy to what is, in the end, a rather straightforward crime committed by an uninteresting man, feels the need to overexplain himself. Over and over he tells the reader how fascinating this crime is and obsessed he has become with telling Bland’s story, and after a while it seems that Harvey has forgotten about his readers and is simply trying to convince himself. The best creative nonfiction seems effortless (John McPhee’s books, for example), but Maps reads like it was a tremendous effort to write.