THE ISLAND OF LOST MAPS
By Miles Harvey
The Island of Lost Maps is a strange book. In the first place, it is a true crime story about a man who was caught cutting maps out of old library books. It’s the sort of thing that may happen a lot, but you don’t hear about it very much. Even stranger, however, is where the book got its start. Along with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, The Island of Lost Maps began as an article written for Outside Magazine, a publication specializing in tales of danger and adventure set in exotic locations.
Adventure? Exotic locations? It’s a world that seems far removed from hushed special collection reading rooms and the anonymous life of Gilbert Bland – a nondescript, middle-aged con-man who, over the course of several years, took a razor blade to some 250 old books in reference libraries throughout the United States and Canada. What he was after were rare old maps, which he surgically removed and then sold to wealthy collectors.
It seems like pretty tame stuff, not the kind of thing you’d be likely to read about in Outside Magazine, and yet this is a story of passion and adventure. Admitting that Bland is bland – “a fairly unexceptional person . . . not even someone I would normally want to know” – Harvey focuses his attention on the culture of cartography and “mappery” (a word borrowed from Shakespeare to describe the passionate study of maps and charts). Along the way he meets the world’s greatest map mogul at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, stops in to see how today’s maps are made at a cutting edge cartography studio, talks to some of the reference librarians who were victimized by Bland, visits one of the giants of the map collecting world, and finally arrives at the Island of Lost Maps itself – a table in an FBI building piled high with the results of Bland’s handiwork: “centuries of mesmerizing and historically crucial documents scattered unceremoniously across the tabletop like a bunch of wallpaper samples.”
In fact, Harvey’s background research is far more interesting than the little we learn about Bland himself. Because Bland never allowed himself to be interviewed the book is left with a hole in its middle. In order to fill the gap Harvey attempts superficial psychological comparisons between Bland and such explorers as Walter Raleigh and John Charles Frémont. The analogy is also made between Harvey’s search for the real Gilbert Bland and the mapping of unknown territory.
This finally leads Harvey to a disturbing (and far-fetched) realization: “that my identity and the map thief’s were somehow starting to converge, that he had taken up permanent residence on the edges of my consciousness.” After following Bland’s trail for four years, he begins to feel that his quest has gone beyond Bland, to the point where he is hunting down some enigmatic citizen of his own psyche.
This is saying far too much. The Island of Lost Maps isn’t big enough to handle such language. If judged on its own terms – as an extended magazine piece exploring an offbeat subculture and a curious crime – it is more than interesting enough.
Review first published October 21, 2000.