Simon Garfield writes in praise of maps that fold.
In September 1889, years before Peter Pan took his inaugural
flight, his creator declared there was a new curse in the
world. The curse was maps, specifically foldable maps - and
more specifically, maps that, once unfolded, could never be
folded up again.
J. M. Barrie was 29 and living in Edinburgh when he noticed a
trend in bookshops along the main street. When paying for
your purchases, the bookseller would offer a new map that was
''convenient for the pocket''. This, Barrie told readers of
the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, was tantamount to
offering someone a prolonged period of unhappiness. He
believed almost every house in the city contained a map that
the whole family, working together, could not shut.
Barrie would have loved the present day. Hardly any folding
maps now, of course, bar that mass of old crinkle clogging up
the glove compartment. For why would anyone bother with them
these days, and why would anyone risk ridicule by spending
money on one?
Ah, let me count the ways ...
I fell in love with maps on my journey to school, dreaming
about the extremities of the famous London Underground. How
exotic it would be to travel to the very end of the
Metropolitan or Piccadilly line. Forty years on, I have still
never quite managed it.
I have used folding maps in Europe, those elegant and
idiosyncratic things guiding us to the Parthenon or the
Louvre, and I have spent days pondering the wonders of the
luscious artifacts made by the Blaeu cartographic dynasty in
mid-17th-century Amsterdam and the tenuous, scratchy
impressions made by William Clark as he trekked westward in
1804 with Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery.
But now we are at a crossroads, not to say a dimly lit
cul-de-sac. The world of mapping has changed beyond
recognition in the past few years, and it may be worthwhile
considering what we are sacrificing in the interests of this
The next generation may not be able to read a traditional
map. Once there was a map of the world in every classroom,
and a globe too, but these days kids will be lucky if they
ever experience the shoulder-dislocating potential of pulling
down an atlas in a library.
Why should this matter? GPS is such a fundamentally useful
part of our modern world that to lose it (something akin to
turning off the world's supply of oil and gas) would be to
deny the great inevitability of human progress.
But with GPS and digital mapping, we are saying goodbye to
the sheer beauty of maps (especially the ones with Spanish
galleons in search of lost treasure in the world's oceans and
the scaly sea creatures luring sailors to their grave). And
we bid a fond farewell to the fine and idiosyncratic detail
of British Ordnance Survey drawings and Rand McNally guides,
with their wavy contours and symbols guiding us through
soul-nourishing hikes and trails.
To squander all this is to lose a vital sense of our history.
Every nation's maps tell their own stories, reflecting our
best and worst attributes: discovery and curiosity, conflict
and destruction. They chart our transitions of power.
Physical maps have been a key part of our world since we
first began finding our way to food and shelter on the
African plains as hunter-gatherers. And Spanish
archaeologists identified a map scratched on a stone by
cave-dwellers about 14,000 years ago. Evolutionary biologist
Richard Dawkins wonders whether the creation of maps - with
their concepts of scale and space - may have kick-started the
expansion and development of the human brain.
But now we may be losing aspects of our personality and
nationhood. Every Google map looks the same wherever you turn
it on. My one big hope for the creative possibility of
digital mapping lies, bizarrely perhaps, in computer games;
parents used to despair of these mind-numbing time-sucks, but
now their creations of vast mythical and futuristic worlds
demand advanced spatial skills both from their cartographers
and players. It may be the only way the young will appreciate
maps the way they used to do in literary fiction.
Maps have always had a power to thrill, and they make
armchair travellers of us all. But you cannot be an armchair
traveller with the map on your phone. With a phone and
satellite navigation, you can travel between continents and
not have the slightest idea how you got there. With digital
maps, we very rarely look up, and we miss famous landmarks
and the transient beauty of the world around us.
Once Jerusalem was at the centre of world maps, but now it is
always us at the centre, usually trying to get somewhere with
our hand-held technology. And perhaps, very slowly, we are
shrinking a vital part of our brain, too - the bit that
develops spatial awareness and once used to make explorers of
Digital accuracy is one thing, but the spirit of romantic
adventuring to places unknown is another, and a valuable one.
J. R. R. Tolkien got it right when he claimed that ''not all
those who wander are lost''.
• Simon Garfield is the author, most recently,
of On the Map. He wrote this for
the Los Angeles Times.