Author of The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime
by Bella Stander
When I was in Chicago this past June at the publishing industry's main trade show, a Random House sales manager shoved an advance reader's copy of The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime into my hands. "You have to read this book!" he enthused. "It's our lead title for fall." I started reading it on the way back to my hotel a little later and was immediately captivated--so much so that I passed up a desperately needed nap and returned to the convention center to have author Miles Harvey autograph my copy.
Harvey's first book began as an article he wrote for the June 1997 issue of Outside magazine, "Mr. Bland's Evil Plot to Control the World." The world in this case refers to antique maps, which an aptly nondescript man named Gilbert Bland apparently had sliced out of atlases in rare book rooms across the U.S. and Canada, including the University of Virginia's Alderman Library, and sold to map dealers and collectors. After reading a newspaper piece in late 1995 recounting Bland's apprehension for taking maps from Johns Hopkins' Peabody Library, Harvey gradually became obsessed with the mysterious thief, who was ultimately brought to justice through the efforts of UVa police investigator Thomas Durrer. "I wanted to find out why this man was running around the country stealing these maps, and what it was about them that captured people's imaginations," explains the writer by phone from his Chicago office.
It took "years" for Harvey to research and write The Island of Lost Maps. "I realized that the kind of book I wanted to write was a hybrid," he says. "It wasn't just a true crime book; it was a book about maps, and how my search for this man, Gilbert Bland, was similar to a cartographer trying to map an unknown land." Harvey succeeds in mapping the boundaries to that unknown land-and taking the reader on an exciting journey through centuries and continents-but as he regretfully acknowledges, Bland himself remains terra incognita. "I think I probably would have failed my college journalism class with this book," Harvey concedes (he has a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Illinois and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan), "because on a formal journalistic level, it's a failure. In Journalism 101 you're taught that in your lead you're supposed to answer who, what, when, where, how and why--and I didn't answer the last one."
Even though Harvey may not have answered the "why" (perhaps because there is no real answer), he delved deeply into the facts of his unwilling subject's life. "It was indescribably bizarre to research the life of a person whom you've never met and who has no interest in talking to you," he says thoughtfully. "I think Bland's a very private guy who unfortunately committed not only very public crimes, but crimes against the public. The courts and school administrations tend to think of library crimes as victimless crimes," (Bland got off with an 18-month sentence despite allegedly having stolen more than 200 maps from 19 institutions) "but in fact the victim is all of us. Those books he was mangling are our history and our heritage. When you cut them up for a quick profit, it's not just the libraries that suffer, it's all the people for all the ages to come who won't have access to important pages from those books. I hope that my journalistic work will stop guys like Bland in the future, or at least help libraries get the security to deter guys like him."
© 2000 Bella Stander