Late in the 19th century, a German geographer named Albrecht Penck came up with an idea that today seems quaint. The entire planet, he told the International Geographical Congress, could and should be mapped, at a uniform scale of one to one million, with all the maps having the same color scheme, typefaces and conventions, and cartographic symbols.

At a subsequent meeting in Paris, the world’s geographers agreed; and so beginning in 1913, sheets from this massive project, the International Map of the World (IMW), began to slide off the presses. To cover the land masses of the entire planet, there would have to be some 2,500 of them. To make sure they were as faithful as possible, many of the sheets (other than those of places near the equator) weren’t entirely right-angled: If you took tape and stuck them all together and added the maritime charts, they would make a spheroid about as big as a decent-size house, and 10-trillionths the size of the world we inhabit.

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.

‘On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks’ by Simon Garfield (Gotham)

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.

Why, for example, does William Maclure not rate a mention? He was a Scottish philanthropist and scientist who made the first (beautiful and surprisingly accurate-looking) geological map of America in 1809. After achieving this he joined a commune in southern Indiana, took like-minded scientists there on a boat from Pittsburgh — the Boatload of Knowledge it was called, and it managed to get itself stuck in the Ohio River ice for days, passengers entertained by a grand piano on board — and made the commune into a farm team for scores of geological mapmakers. Garfield could have had enormous fun with him.

And what of William Smith, an impoverished Cotswold canal-digger who heroically tramped the English countryside for a decade before creating the first true and truly accurate geological map of anywhere? Smith’s original 1815 map of England and Wales, hanging in the Geological Society in Piccadilly and gazed at by thousands each year (and now temporarily in the Tate Britain gallery as part of a mapping celebration), is revered across the world — not least because it was the first map to allow the prediction of what lay invisible beneath the Earth’s surface. Before Smith, one could only guess where coal, iron or oil might be. After Smith you drew a map of the surface geology and could then work out by extrapolation where the strata of interest might run below, and throw down a shaft, and make millions.

Yet, regrettably, there is no mention of Smith in these pages (save for another of the same name who was a pilot on one of Captain Cook’s expeditions). It is still another flaw, and one that turns what could have been a book every bit as useful as it is amusing into little more than a very slight addition to the literature.

There is a great deal that is good and charming and fun about this book. But overall, Garfield seems like that most frustrated of soldiers, the general who has to deal in the field with a battle to be fought at that nightmare spot right in the middle of a swamp of information irrelevant to his needs, and where no soldier ever wants to be: He is floundering in a sea of facts, lost at the join of four maps.

Simon Winchester ’s “The Map That Changed the World” was published in 2002. His next book, “The Men Who United the States,” is due out in October.


A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks

By Simon Garfield

Gotham. 464 pp. $27.50