The Map Thief

June 1, 2014 Biography, History, Narrative Non-Fiction, non-fiction, Psychology 29

18693681Title: The Map Thief
Author: Michael Blanding
Source: from publisher for review
Rating: ★★★★★
Fun Fact: Because mapmakers continued to depict California as an island after it was known not to be, Ferdinand VII of Spain issued a law which simply stated “California is not an island.”
Review Summary: This is a well-researched story which included both interesting personal details and awesome fun facts written in an engaging way – everything I want from narrative nonfiction!

To most people who knew him, E. Forbes Smiley III appeared to be a respectable, well-to-do map dealer. However, there were some who suspected otherwise, noting his sometimes bounced checks and less than friendly business practices. Nothing could be proven until he dropped a razor blade while visiting a rare book collection, raising the librarians suspicions. The Map Thief tells Smiley’s story, from his childhood through his arrest, as well as the history of map-making and map collecting. The author shares bits of an exclusive post-arrest interview with Smiley and is able to share other personal stories from interviews with friends. He also addresses clues that Smiley might not have been entirely forthcoming about how many maps he stole.

This book is an exemplary piece of narrative nonfiction and gave me precisely the reading experience I look for from that genre. I loved the detailed descriptions of people and places which brought the story to life. I loved them even more when the author’s notes clearly showed he’d done the interviews and other research necessary to know these details. I liked that the beginning included a cast of characters, but liked even more that the author wrote so clearly, I never needed to use the cast list. I was immediately won over by the author’s decision to start the book with his journey to learn about Smiley. I actually really like narrative nonfiction where the author inserts their research adventures into the book. They give part of the story a first-person perspective, which I find very immersive.

In addition to the detailed depiction of Smiley’s story, The Map Thief includes a lot of fascinating anecdotes and fun facts about the history of maps. Prior to reading this book, I might not have realized what a rich topic this was. Since the boundaries shown on maps reflect exploration, philosophical beliefs about unexplored regions, political realities, and political aspirations, the history of maps is intimately connected with the history of human expansion. The author did a fantastic job connecting the maps he discusses to larger world events. The story flowed impressively smoothly between history and Smiley’s stories. The story also raised many ethical issues which I think will be of interest to most readers. As a reader, especially having just read about the history of maps, it was easy for me to appreciate how horrible Smiley’s breach of trust was when he removed maps from the books where they belonged. The ease with which he does so highlights the balance necessary between providing public access to our cultural treasures and adequately protecting them.

This book was a perfect blend of facts and human interest which I’d highly recommend to any fan of narrative nonfiction.



29 Responses to “The Map Thief”

  1. Kate

    This sounds great. If you’re not already sick of maps, have you read ‘The Map That Changed the World’ by Simon Winchester? Really, really good as well.

    • DoingDewey

      I haven’t, but I’m not sick of maps and I loved this book, so I’ll go look that up now. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • DoingDewey

      Awesome! I had no particular interest in maps going into this and I still love it, so I’m sure someone who was already excited about maps would think it was that much better.

  2. tanya

    This kind of reminds me of a few art forgery and heist books i’ve read in the past. A good gripping yarn that’s true and still kind of unbelievable.

    • DoingDewey

      I think some of my favorite nonfiction is that which could pass for fiction. It’s exciting enough that someone might go to the trouble of making it up, so it’s especially cool that it’s a true story 🙂

  3. Jennine G.

    Wow, I’ve been seeing so many reviews of this, it may have to go on the list.

  4. Cayce

    “California is not an island.” LOL. I love maps and would love to learn more about map-makers, and the “map thief”, Smiley’s story sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ll be on the lookout for this book!

    • DoingDewey

      Although the whole book was fantastic, that was still one of my favorite parts and one I’m sharing with anyone who will listen 🙂 It was a really interesting story and I especially liked that it was so recent, since it meant the author had a lot of sources for information about Smiley as a person.

    • DoingDewey

      This may mean I took to long to reply to your comment, but I’m happy to be able to say that it’s out now! Yay! 🙂

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.