In which we periodically examine how art imitates life and life imitates orienteering.

by Peter Amram

The Map Thief, by Michael Blanding (2014), relates the perplexing story of E. Forbes Smiley, III, who made a smooth transition from respected antique map dealer to prolific thief of those same objects.

Smiley, who had access to venerable map collections in America, was caught when an attentive Yale librarian found an Exacto knife on the floor next to where Smiley had been researching, and slicing. He was arrested, convicted, and jailed for several years. Smiley’s apparent motive was the vortex of debts he had acquired in both business and a quixotic attempt to revert a Maine village into an earlier, nostalgic form.

All but the most dedicated cartographiles might weary of Blanding’s close descriptions of European and early American map-making and distribution; however, the author effectively captures the alluring utility and beauty of the maps which were Smiley’s passion, vocation, downfall.

More to the present point, Blanding meditates on the very nature of maps:

In his one-paragraph short story, On Exactitude in Science, surrealist writer Jorge Luis Borges imagined an empire so advanced in the science of mapmaking that it was able to produce a map on a one-to-one scale—that is, as large as the empire itself. Such a feat, or course, is as impossible as it is undesirable. The very point of a map is to re-create an area in miniature, allowing us to envision, navigate, and control our world.
The paradox of mapmaking, however, is that as soon as you begin shrinking a geography down to a useable size, you necessarily are forced to misrepresent it. By making choices about what to include and what to leave out, you change the map from a document faithfully documenting an area to one furthering a particular point of view. Writing contains the same paradox. As soon as we start picking and choosing relevant details .... we change the story to fit the narrative.

So next time you’re confused out in the woods and you bend the map to fit the terrain, remember that the cartographer bent the terrain to fit the map, so what you’re doing is restoring the natural order of things.


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