Island of content in an ocean of padding.
Here is a diverting magazine article – maybe a few pages – blown out into a pretty average book. You can see where this journalist would have thought he was onto something – the basic story of the sheer volume of valuable maps stolen by one guy is interesting. Moreover not many of us know about the ins and out of the map trade, and obviously many of the first maps of an area have a story behind them. It’s like someone who’s put a fair bit of work into their honours thesis and thinks, “Hey, I reckon I could just push this a bit further and pull out a Ph.D.”
This is where a good supervisor/editor could have stepped in and reintroduced some reality: “Mate, that’d be an excellent story, but you’ll never spin it out into a whole book.”
Harvey could have pushed his case. This is potentially interesting stuff, and he’s a decent enough writer: the style is palatable and carries you along … BUT, dammit, we need some better content. The book hinged hugely on whether or not his central figure was interesting enough. Gilbert Bland, however, was not only essentially unremarkable – he wasn’t even available to be interviewed! At this point Harvey should have admitted defeat, cut his losses and got onto something else. Instead we get chapters of absurd padding – interviews with wildly speculating psychologists – none of whom have exchanged two words with their subject – about the unconscious motivations of collectors and thieves. Was it his difficult family background? Trauma from his years in Vietnam? Joke is after all this even Harvey himself comes up with the earth-shattering theory that Bland stole the maps because they wore worth money and he was greedy.
Well, stone me – who would have thought it?
Even if Harvey had have managed to get the interview he constantly begged Bland to grant, it’s dubious whether Bland would have had much interesting to say. He was a dishonest guy who stole things – it could have been computers or hardware – the only reason he was even worth an article was that he stole rare maps.
Sure, there is some engaging material in relating some of the ripping yarns of the original cartographers. But this is wholly undermined by Harvey’s at times excruciatingly contrived attempts to parallel them to his own ‘quests’ and ‘discoveries’ in his search for the material to make a decent book. You’ll get something like, “Magellan had to navigate his way right around the globe … just like I was navigating my way around the globe of Bland’s life,” – and he’ll spin this sort of spurious metaphor out for pages, investing it with some absurd synchronistic spiritual significance. While the rest of the book is mildly diverting if taken in small doses, his attempts to make some sort of powerful coherence by poring over his journey in creating the book are, well, bad. They make bad reading, they make you groan and roll your eyes.
In a sense, though, I suppose, good luck to him. He has turned all the work he’d invested in a nice idea that didn’t pan out (through no fault of his own) into a completed (and successful) book. Not a bad trick given the ultimate paucity of his material. Better for him than just throwing it into the bin once he realised he wasn’t going to get the interview with Bland, and the book was never going to be really good. Like a researcher whose tests didn’t result in the cataclysmic results he’d hoped for, he’s professionally written up and published the results anyway rather than just shrivel up. However, from the reader’s perspective there are plenty of other books out there where the results did come up – where the central figures ARE fascinating. The Island of Lost Maps won’t hurt you, but there are better stories to spend your time on – ones that (unlike me with this one) you won’t find yourself putting aside two thirds of the way through. Let me suggest, for example, William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1998) – where the author, similarly, follows a hunch that there’s a book in an interest of his, but much more successfully pulls off the mix of striking history, personal experience and novel contemporary characters.
 Reminds me of Oliver Sacks’ unfortunate persistence with the mistitled The Island of the Colour-blind. He theorised that there may be an island with such a predominance of achromatic people (who could only see black and white) that he could study the fascinating way a different perspective culture had emerged. By the time he’d found that there really weren’t enough such people to have a really substantial effect his publishers had already made the advance and paid for his trip, and he’d already got down a few thousand words, so of course they published anyway.