Book Review: The Natures Of Maps

The Natures Of Maps: Geographic Constructions Of The Natural World, by Denis Wood & John Fels

There are many individual fallacies in this book, far too many for a modest length book review like this one to discuss in any kind of detail, but they spring from two common and interrelated factors and so by discussing the core issue it becomes more clear what makes this book so mistaken in its approach, even if it remains a fascinating read on other levels and worthy of consideration for those who are savvy about the rhetorical nature of cartography. The authors of this book take a strongly deconstructionist attitude towards existing authorities in geography like the National Geographic Society, whose maps and general approach I am fond of, for the most part, but their hostility towards the authority that other mapmakers claim (which includes a comparison of a cloudless view of the United States with Stalinist collages airbrushing out fallen comrades, a rather harsh comparison), but they do so not because they do not wish for there to be authority in geography but rather because they wish to be authorities without having paid their dues or having respect for existing authorities, and inattentive to the fact that their postmodern skepticism can be turned against their own viewpoints and claims for authority. The second core problem, related to the first, is that the lack of respect that the authors have for the Creator mean that they have a great deal of unwarranted hostility to people who engage in subcreative acts of demarcation and mapping, bring the world under our benign but sustained gaze.

In terms of its contents, the title is a pun that demonstrates the slippery ambiguity of the term nature as it relates to the “natural” world. More bluntly, maps are creations of creation, which resolves the paradox that the authors continue to circle over and over again in this volume, legitimate because when we map and organize and practice our abstract intellect along with our compassion towards lesser beings we are acting in imitatio Dei [1]. After an entertaining and relatively comprehensible forward, note to the reader, and introduction, the book’s contents are divided into two parts. The first part of the book, the first three chapters, look at the nature of maps, their propositional logic, and contain an extensive case study in reading a National Geographic map called “Land Of The Living Fossils.” The second half of the book, which contains the remaining eight chapters of the book, looks at nature in eight ways: threatened nature, threatening nature, nature as grandeur, nature as cornucopia, nature as possession, nature as a system, nature as mystery, and nature as a park protected from the threat of mankind, which brings the conception back to nature threatened and imperiled from rapine forces of crass commercialism. The book as a whole contains a bit more than 200 large pages with rich color maps and drawings.

From the contents of the book, it is clear that the authors wish to be for maps what Edward Tufte [2] is for data visualization, providing a great deal of criticism about the way cartography is done and bringing a great deal of attention to epimap material, the supporting text, legends, borders, and titles that frame and explain what is on the map. The authors fail in their ambition to be as notable as Tufte because their sense of humor is less humane and because they are far more hypocritical in their approach. The tension between trying to present themselves as authorities while simultaneously attacking authority on broad grounds is too much for a book, even one as gorgeously printed and pointedly incisive as this one, to manage successfully. The result is a book that gives plenty of food for thought, but fails in its task of becoming an authority in its own right. A bit more respect to authority, including the importance of drawing lines and separating between the legitimate and the illegitimate, would have made this book a lot more worthwhile, since the wise reader does not hate all authority, but merely hates the abuse and corrupt use of authority, which requires a recognition that there is a true reality to morality, a contradiction of the postmodern skepticism the authors hold most dear and as the only ultimate truth they wish to present. Caveat lector—this book must be read with caution by those who can see through the authors’ doublespeak and respond accordingly, and is not suitable for general audiences.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: The Natures Of Maps

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Power Of Trees | Edge Induced Cohesion

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