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THE ISLAND OF LOST MAPS by Miles Harvey Kirkus Star


A True Story of Cartographic Crime

by Miles Harvey

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-50151-7
Publisher: Random House

Magazine journalist Harvey (Outside) charts the case of Gilbert Bland Jr., who in the 1990s stole vast amounts of rare material from some of North America’s most prestigious research libraries and thus became “the greatest American map thief in history.”

In his map of Bland’s life, Harvey leaves a few blank spaces—primarily because Bland refused interviews and threatened the author with civil and criminal proceedings if he persisted. Nonetheless, Harvey does a remarkable job of reconstructing the biography of Bland, who, employing aliases and a manner so colorless as to render himself practically invisible to librarians, was able to remove from various facilities (some with high security) hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare maps, which he then sold to somewhat complicit collectors and dealers. Harvey’s method is to paint the background so meticulously that the foreground will somehow appear. It works. He interviews a myriad of persons related to Bland’s story. We hear from W. Graham Arader III, “the most recognizable figure in the world of antique maps,” who had dealings with Bland and was among the first to suspect him. We hear, too, from other dealers, collectors, librarians, mapmakers, and even psychiatrists who specialize in the obsession of collecting. (One theorizes that collecting is an “ancient urge” traceable to our hunter-gatherer ancestry.) Enriching the text is the author’s prodigious research into the history of cartography, and in most chapters he intercuts his story of the pursuit of Bland (who actually turned himself in and is now free) with supplementary information about subjects as varied as satellite imaging, the career of explorer John C. Frémont, the library of ancient Alexandria, the D-Day invasion (a map theft was involved in its success), and the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin. So entranced was Harvey by his subject, in fact, that at one point he worries that in chasing Bland he was “hunting down some enigmatic citizen of my own psyche.”

Harvey stretches some analogies to the snapping point, but has drawn a lovely map of an exotic world. (18 maps, not seen)