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The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name

by Toby Lester

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4165-3531-7
Publisher: Free Press

The history of a rare and priceless map, which serves as a window to the mysteries and marvels of the Age of Discovery.

In his debut, Atlantic contributing editor Lester begins with the amazing story of an obscure German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller. In 1507, updating a world map he had first published a few years earlier, Waldseemüller carefully laid in the word “America” to label a vast continent across the Atlantic. Still unknown beyond its Eastern coastline, it had been described by the Italian discoverer Amerigo Vespucci. This first printed attribution became known as “America’s birth certificate,” and just one copy of more than 1,000 survived antiquity, languishing in a German castle’s library until it was discovered by a Catholic scholar in 1901. In 2003, the U.S. Library of Congress bought it for $10 million, the most ever paid publicly for a historical document. This story becomes the point of digression for the bulk of the book, which looks at how, “over the course of several centuries, Europeans gradually shook off long-held ideas about the world; rapidly expanded their geographical and intellectual horizons; and eventually—in a collective enterprise that culminated in the making of the map—managed to arrive at a new understanding of the world as a whole.” Significantly, flat-earth theories were not prevalent; the planet’s size and shape had been roughly plumbed for a millennium, with Arab astronomers refining the original numbers of the Greeks. Lester stresses, however, that living in that time meant that large unknown regions of the globe may as well have been in outer space. No one could be certain, for instance, that life was supported below the Equator. As the Age of Discovery progressed, with the likes of Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and the Portuguese navigators testing new margins, the race of the scientists and cartographers to keep up—separating self-promotion from fact—becomes a fascinating saga, ably captured in Lester’s hands.

A swift, sweeping primer on the Age of Discovery and the legacy of mapmaking.