How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier

How to Lie with Maps gives readers a glimpse into an arcane field whose ubiquitous products we tend to take for granted: cartography. I’ve read a lot of books, but never one with this particular focus.

You can tell the author loves maps; he wants readers to appreciate the good ones, scorn the poor ones, and be wary of those created with specific agendas in mind. His goal is to raise awareness.

Mission accomplished.

More about this fascinating subject and the author’s take on it below.

Why I Enjoyed How to Lie with Maps

The subjects touched on in the book include not just deception and cartography but also advertising, local and global politics, statistics, project management, environmentalism, color, and print and digital technologies. In short, the book offered a wider variety of both facts and concepts than I would have expected to find in a book of less than 200 pages.

The book’s concepts are largely still relevant, but some details are outdated and thus unintentionally hilarious. In 1991, the author not only found it necessary (in a section brilliantly titled “Of Mice and Menus”) to explain that computers now have graphical user interfaces, he also chose to characterize hackers as a new and threatening phenomenon:

Unknown before telecommunicaton networks allowed computers to talk to each other as well as to distant users, the hacker is a compulsive computer enthusiast who likes to enter and alter others’ databases. (114)

Things have changed. The cultural perception of hackers is no longer exclusively negative, and thanks in part to scads of movies portraying hackers (however unrealistically), people are much more familiar with the term.

Interestingly, the author cites advances in technology as the cause of an “unfortunate” flood of badly made maps (46). The concern is a familiar one: whenever something becomes cheaper, more widely available, or more easily created and shared, connoisseurs are appalled at the embrace of quantity at the expense of quality. This is one of the complaints of The Cult of the Amateur.

I particularly liked how the author described the role of choice. Built into the task of map-making is the necessity to choose; every map is and must be abstracted and simplified to some degree, because otherwise the map is the territory. Like advertisers, cartographers always “communicate a limited version of the truth” (58).

I approve of the author’s stated motivation for describing the types of deceptions, self-deceptions, and mistakes that are possible: it’s an exercise not in cynicism but in education. Clearly the author believes the pen is mightier than the sword—and not just when the pen is making a map (90).

When and Why I Read
How to Lie with Maps

I might as well continue reading on the theme of data in the vein of deception (and how to see through it)!

Genre: non-fiction (cartography)
Date started / date finished:  30-Apr-17 to 06-May-17
Length: 189 pages
ISBN: 0226534219 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1991
Amazon link: How to Lie with Maps