The title of Jerry Brotton’s book raises all sorts of questions, the biggest being: is it possible to consider a history of the world in twelve maps? And the flip side: if it is possible, is it desirable? And what does it say about us, and our time, that we want to know a history of the world, not the history?
At first I suspected that the book’s conceit was a gimmick for readers short of time or struggling with some attention deficiency. But I was wrong. Brotton is a miniaturist and all the more fascinating for exploring in detail each of the maps he presents. It became obvious very early on that I, for one, had thought neither long nor hard enough about what a map could represent. Happily Brotton has done a great deal of thinking for us. This wonderful book answers its doubters within the first two pages, as Brotton considers the British Museum’s Baby-lonian Map of the World. This carved clay tablet places Babylon in the centre, bisected by the Euphrates, and surrounded by marshes, mountains and other natural features. The known world is then circled by an ocean, beyond which lie ‘uncharted spaces, the mythical, faraway places’ inhabited by strange creatures.