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The Island of Lost Maps:
A True Story of Cartographic Crime
by Miles Harvey
(Random House)

September 2000

by Bella Stander

Late in this fascinating book, author Miles Harvey muses, "a discovery has less to do with revelation than with declaration. Just as the word explore comes from the Latin for 'to cry out,' discovery is the act of making known. Christopher Columbus was not the first to arrive in America: his genius was in introducing the New World to the old one."

In following the tortuous trail of Gilbert Bland, the appropriately nondescript man who under various aliases stole rare maps from libraries across North America, intrepid explorer Harvey displays his own genius for making known the world of maps and its enormous influence on human events. He cites such examples as Columbus and his cartographer brother, Bartholomeo; John Charles Frémont, aka "the Pathfinder," who due to his exploration and (sometimes inaccurate) mapping of the American West in the 1840s, "helped fuel one of the greatest migrations in American history"; and of course, last year's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces due to an out-of-date map.

Using simple yet eloquent language--sometimes profoundly so--Harvey deftly interweaves a true detective story with a history of mapmaking and its Siamese twin, map theft (practiced by explorers through the centuries including the Columbus brothers), and meditations on such topics as greed, imaginary islands, the ages-old search for Eldorado, the compulsion to collect things, and the emotional repercussions of having a convict in the family.

Even with the astonishing breadth and depth of information that Harvey conveys, The Island of Lost Maps is smartly paced, with an engaging cast of characters: the shadowy Mr. Bland, with whom our trusty guide draws compelling parallels to "the Pathfinder"; a colorful Virginia map dealer and bon vivant; the dogged investigator for the University of Virginia Police Department who brought Bland to justice; the FBI special agent who was responsible for returning the stolen maps to their institutional owners--some of whom to this day won't check whether any maps are missing because they refuse to admit that their security systems could have been breached.

It's obvious that Harvey did a staggering amount of research--the "Notes" at book's end alone run nearly 40 pages. He quotes from such disparate sources as Daniel Boorstin, Franz Kafka, Shakespeare, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, various medieval and Renaissance travelers and, best of all, an inscription in a Spanish monastery that should be inscribed over every library door and on every bookplate:

"For him that steals, or borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy; and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever."

© 2000 Bella Stander

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