EPS Review #124 - The Map that Changed the World

The Map That Changed the World, by Simon Winchester, Viking 2001, 338pp.

William Smith's map Now here is a book that makes me seriously wonder if reviewers really read the stuff they review. The story that Winchester tells, about William Smith the country plebeian who makes the first ever geological map (around 1815), digs canals, marries a nymphomaniac girl, spends time in debtor's prison, drains marshes, is the first to associate fossils with dating strata, and is plagiarised but ultimately recognised by the establishment -- the story is just plain fascinating. And the reviewers praise it effusively. But if you actually read every word, the pompous style soon grows annoying. It is repetitive and exaggerated, or as Mr. Winchester would say, hyperbolically orotund. There are many digressions, and many of these are pointlessly dismissive:

Indeed the fashion [ of fossil collecting ] -- for that is all it was, a fashion -- began to die in mid-Victorian times. The spread of travel and a growing amazement with the outside world suddenly began to make souvenirs from anthropology more valued as icons than dirt-encrusted items from earth history. Suddenly drawing rooms became places to record and to show off the material reward of journeying through space, rather than the dusty and mysterious objects that came from journeying through time. What had hitherto been a signifier of drawing-room decorum seemed over-night to become the pastime of the dull, and then steadily to evolve into what amateur palaeontology is now, no more than the mark of the nerd.

The author also, in several places, asserts that evolution is the progress from primitive species to the more advanced, something I thought would so irritate Stephen Jay Gould that I googled the two of them. And what do you know, one reviewer (SJG in the NYTimes) really did read the book carefully:

I don't mean to sound like an academic sourpuss, but I just don't understand the priorities of publishers who spare no expense to produce an elegantly illustrated and beautifully designed book and then permit the text to wallow in simple, straight-out factual errors, all easily corrected for the minimal cost of one scrutiny of the galleys by a reader with professional expertise...

Funny how that isn't on the dustcover. Well, at least I was glad to learn the origin of the term oolite, in the egg-like pebbles originally part of a shallow sea. It is rather cool that England has all these strata on display. But then I am a nerd.

I reviewed another book by this author (Korea, A Walk through the Land of Miracles), which was also an interesting topic somewhat marred by the writing. Several people have urged me to read The Professor and the Madman, as well. As for geology, I think McPhee will be a better choice for further reading.

Oh, I read this on our ski trip to Italy, which may be why I finished it.

Luke wrote: Nice review. I was disappointed with the map book too, largely for the reasons you mentioned. I got the map book because I had read the professor book first, which is much better both as a story and for its writing. When we went to Oxford two summers ago we passed by the house of the OED editor.

Ewan wrote: SJG is awfully good sometimes although he gets a bad rep from the molecular biology people.

Giovanni wrote: [ re: wallowing in factual errors ] Because the publishing industry is a big business -- all they care about is getting that book onto coffee tables -- and its tools are the myriad recent graduates of undergraduate liberal arts programs who slave away at sub-minimum wage, but who, by now, for the most part, wouldn't know a factual error from the moon. These days it seems that people get degrees in the liberal arts because they can't think or read critically, not in order to do so.

Susan wrote: I just started his book about the San Francisco earthquake. I hope the style is better than in the one you just read. Note that I choose not to read it until we had safely returned, couldn't stand the irony of having the book found among our few surviving possessions.

Bill wrote: I loved Winchester's "The Professor and the Madman." The madman was W.C. Minor, who had an obsession with words and Fenians. Minor made many contributions to the first Oxford English Dictionary. The work of lexicographers was to find actual uses of a word so that a definition and history of the word could be written. Minor was a great reader, and submitted thousands of word uses. He was a genuine lunatic and did most of this harmless drudgery while confined to a madhouse.

The professor was James Murray, who organized the effort to produce the first Oxford English Dictionary -- it took decades. Murray enlisted readers to send in word uses on little cards. He got lots of help. His local pillar box had to be replaced by a larger version. Imagine organizing all these quotations on index cards before computers were available.

Winchester may have made something of how undertaking the OED fit in with the times. Scholars were organizing and subjugating great tranches of sciences and culture during the same period that Clive and Rhodes carved up the geographic world.

Reviewers suggested Winchester may have reached too far for dramatic effect, for example in the first encounter of the professor with the madman. But it's just too good a story to paint a picture of Murray shaking hands with Minor and realizing that the brilliant correspondent who had been so helpful for so long was nuts. Winchester may have taken liberties with "Map" to make a good story -- or he may just not know his geology.

I enjoyed John McPhee until so much of his work became geologically oriented. I'm just not that interested in geology. And why say "prodigious declivity" when you mean "steep hill"? My sister got me "The Founding Fish," which is about shad fishing on the Delaware River. I liked the local interest ("Look, Wende, he's talking about the Lambertville Bridge!") but a lot of it seems like a guy trying to make a book out of a hobby.

McPhee had a piece years ago -- I think it appeared in the New Yorker (was it "The Curve of Binding Energy"?) about a nuclear weapons designer whose speciality was small nukes. The man claimed he could put a suitcase nuke just so under a World Trade Center tower and drop it into the Hudson River, like felling a tree. Chilling thought now.

I write: Also check out this piece of oolite.