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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 115-117

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Book Review

Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past

Maps and Politics

Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past. By Jeremy Black. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Pp. ix + 267. $35 (cloth).

Maps and Politics. By Jeremy Black. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Pp. 188. $35 (cloth).

Jeremy Black's Maps and History and Maps and Politics, published in the same year, convey the same general message--that maps are inherently nonobjective. Maps and Politics, in particular, is a veritable polemic for the idea that cartography is biased and "political." The topic is important, Black believes, because historians persist in regarding cartography as "scientific" rather than seeking to understand its biases. To correct this lapse, both books provide the reader with a wealth of information on how to understand the premises and choices that underlie any map. In addition, other issues are covered, such as the mapping of new subjects and fields, the commercial context in which historical atlases are created, and new technology in cartography.

Maps and History, for seven of its eleven chapters, is a historiographical, chronological analysis of historical atlases. The historiographical treatment is penetrating but perhaps overly detailed for a noncartographer. Although Black seldom states clearly his theme of cartographic bias, he advances it forcefully with the following kind of analysis of atlases: "The atlases of the [nineteenth century] were nationalist, imperialist, and didactic, with a clear emphasis on territoriality....The emphasis was resolutely Eurocentric....The political agenda of the nation state was matched by a cartographic style that stressed...territory...separated by clear linear frontiers" (pp. 67-68). Atlases produced by communist governments and atlases about non-European peoples are covered. About recent "radical" Western atlases, Black offers only a single paragraph, a curious shortchanging (which is arguably rectified in Maps and Politics).

Chapter 6 is a highly interesting foray into the commercial aspect of the production of historical atlases. Some items: the publisher, rather than the author, typically originates the project and thus sets its parameters; the expense of research and publication is tremendous, as is the pressure to produce rapidly; institutional subsidy may be necessary to offset production costs; production costs are reduced by relying upon previous work; for these reasons, historical atlases tend to be conservative. (Now this reviewer understands why he, a lover of historical atlases and an owner of perhaps more than he can properly afford, has never found a really satisfactory one.) [End Page 115]

Chapter 9 concerns new topics for mapping. How do we map social, economic, and cultural data, such as religion, gender, change, and dynamism, and special topics like witch trials and the Enlightenment? The data are undoubtedly there; in fact, "the sheer mass of information is one of the greatest problems with which mapmakers today contend" (p. 204). For some readers, this chapter will be particularly important, as the author explores the cutting edge of mapping and offers many thoughtful opinions about what may or may not profitably be mapped.

In his chapter on new technology, Black covers the important advances that computers have wrought in cartography and historical atlas production--but with an unaccountable lack of emphasis. He acknowledges that "new technology may make publication in book form less common," but he has remarkably little to say about this issue, which goes to the heart of his subject matter. He pointedly closes the chapter with a quotation from Brian Harley calling for "a greater pluralism of cartographic expression." Yet he hardly covers the new technology that promises the ultimate in pluralistic expression--the computer-interactive mapping technology that may enable each user to create his or her own maps, and which thus seems to portend the virtual replacement of the cartographer with the user-cartographer. Nor does Black fill this lacuna in Maps and Politics.

While the statements of theme in Maps and History are frustratingly elusive, those of Maps and Politics are refreshingly forceful. "This book seeks to emphasize that the apparent 'objectivity' of...