Discover more from M.A. Franklin's Bluster and Brine
I Love Maps...And So Should You
They show a love for the reader.
I recently purchased a book based solely on the maps it contained. It was Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming, and I felt immediate delight flipping its pages and seeing the care taken to lay it out properly.
Look at how helpful this map is in providing context. The map is also not tucked away in the front of the book or relegated to the back. It appears across from the page that begins the account of the British retreat from Concord. The book has twenty-three other maps just as helpful as this one, listed at the beginning of the book for easy reference.
It's such a simple thing. I rarely encounter this much love for the reader. Here’s another one.
Bad Maps Can Be Worse Than No Maps
Most books of history get their maps wrong, especially books dealing with wars and military movements. They slap a few maps at the beginning and call it a day. The reader is left to thumb back and forth to get some context, not really sure which map will provide the best picture. Many times, he searches in vain, thus wasting precious reading time.
A recent example was Andrew Robert’s Churchill biography. A wonderful read. Almost useless maps. Many times, I found myself trying to place momentous events on what should have been the obvious map, only to discover that the city was not present or the island was not labeled. This happened about 50% of the time. Places of momentous occasion were nowhere to be found. I found myself wishing there had been no maps at all.
What a waste.
Going in the Right Direction
But it seems he learned his lesson. His Grant biography has great maps of the biggest battles. However, they are grouped at the beginning of the book, crammed together, all at a safe distance from the words that describe the events. Sure, they’re better than nothing, but the experience doesn’t bring delight.
The Gold Standard
The first books I came across to really get maps right were the Landmark editions of Herodotus and Thucydides. Maps are embedded in the text and contain only the features that are mentioned in the immediate context. No fluff. Only clarity.
This is now my expectation for any historical text. Anything less is a disappointment, and I have gotten used to disappointment. That’s why Atkinson’s book was such a surprise.
Why do we find such interest in the maps of Middle Earth? Why do most fantasy novels have some kind of map to represent their fictional worlds? Because maps are useful guides. Because they’re fun to pour over. A map is a functional piece of art.
If maps are such an important part of the fantasy landscape, detailing fictional worlds, we should understand why they should be an important part of the non-fictional landscape. With a good map, a reader might discover the key to a door they thought was locked to their understanding.
The reader isn’t dumb. Maps are not required to understand the words. But it’s the difference between eating at a chain restaurant and being treated to a sublime dining experience with an expert wait staff.
Geography and history go together like two pieces of a puzzle. They are soulmates. This goes double for military history. Without some kind of grasp of the terrain and layout, the reader is missing something important.
Maps are especially helpful for children when they learn history. It grounds the stories in reality. The spatial aspect helps them understand sequences of events. Always have a good map ready when reading history to children.
M.A. Franklin's Bluster and Brine is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.