"The Island of Lost Maps" by Miles Harvey

The story of a thief obsessed by rare maps -- and a journalist obsessed by the prospect of turning a magazine article into a book.

Published September 6, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Writing a magazine article produces more waste byproducts than any other human activity except maybe eating artichokes and mining for uranium. Because journalists often come to a subject cold, even a modest piece requires a lot of background research, most of which will ultimately prove irrelevant. The discards -- transcripts of two-hour interviews that yielded one usable quote, books, old newspaper clips -- can molder for years in cardboard boxes, silent and reproachful testament to the inefficiency of the process. It is a rare writer who can look at those boxes and not think, wistfully, Gee, I wonder if I could get a book out of that. Bestsellers like "The Orchid Thief," "Into Thin Air" and "The Perfect Storm," all of which started as magazine pieces, make the fantasy seem plausible.

But recent publication history notwithstanding, sometimes a writer should just say no. A case in point is "The Island of Lost Maps," a swollen version of a 1997 article from Outside magazine. In it, first-time author Miles Harvey tries to assemble a book from materials that made a fine magazine piece but can't go the 350-page distance. And while anyone can sympathize with his plight -- who, after all, hasn't tried to crank out an overdue term paper on a carelessly chosen topic? -- the results are not much fun to read.

"The Island of Lost Maps" is the story of a mousy and unremarkable petty crook named Gilbert Bland, who had a brief career in the '90s as a map thief. Posing as a researcher, Bland would gain entry to rare-book collections and slice old maps out of antique atlases with a single-edged razor. These he would fold up, hide in his clothing and eventually sell to unsuspecting -- or at least unquestioning -- dealers. Before being busted at the Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he had stolen more than half a million dollars' worth of maps, many of which are still unclaimed. All this material is covered in the original article. Unfortunately, Harvey chose to structure "The Island of Lost Maps" around the search for the motives and history of the "real" Bland, who proves to be elusive, uncooperative and as colorless as his name.

There were warning signals that this might be a bad idea, though Harvey ignores them. Bland's acquaintances, whom Harvey dutifully tracks down, either don't remember the guy or describe him with words like "pleasant," "nice enough," "just your average Joe." And what evidence he does uncover suggests Bland was driven by neither the passion nor the thrill of the chase; instead, he saw old maps as equivalent to car radios: easy to steal, easier to sell.

Nevertheless, Harvey labors to convince us that Bland really is worth a book. Perhaps he was "less of a con man than an un man" he suggests, hopefully, "inducing unmindfulness, lulling people into believing he was simply not worth much thought one way or another." Elsewhere he muses, way too creatively, "Maybe you steal maps because you're searching for a home ... or crave the dark joy of appropriation." Harvey is not the first journalist to pick the wrong subject; even the peerless Janet Malcolm was felled by a dull protagonist in "The Crime of Sheila McGough." Still, the strain is unpleasant.

To further distract us from Bland's blandness, Harvey tries to inflate incidents and descriptions out of all proportion to their importance, and to pad the text by recapping map-related books and movies. (Does anyone here not know the plot of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"?) He feels bound to spin chapters out of nothing and to describe minutiae with a detail that would choke Proust. Of a statue outside the Peabody Library, where Bland was arrested, he writes: "The general's steed, a study in power and movement with muscles taut, mouth chomping at the bit, neck twisting against the reins, tail flying, seemed to making a mockery of the sluggish chase below."

On coming across a town called Eldorado he claims kinship with "so many dreamers, desperadoes, and idiots before me: Raleigh, whose search for the golden city cost him his son and then his own head; Gonzalez Pizarro, whose men were reduced to eating horses, dogs, and saddle leather before abandoning their journey"; and on through the cardboard box marked "Explorers -- history."

Perhaps Harvey's most dangerous move is trying to plump up his thin subject by turning himself and his pursuit of Bland into a leitmotif. He invites us into his study to read what's tacked on the wall behind his computer, into the coffee shop where he first read about Bland in the paper ("Where my life was transformed one day and this book was born") and even into his mind: "I cannot say whether in seeking [Bland] out I was somehow looking for the grandfather I never met." Don't know about you, but I don't need a map to identify deep doo-doo.

In fairness, there is interesting stuff in "Island": a section on map engraving in the 17th century, for instance; another on modern mapmaking at the American Map Corp. in Queens, N.Y. But as I read them, I couldn't help thinking, "Gee, he could get some great magazine pieces out of this."

By JoAnn Gutin

JoAnn Gutin is a writer and anthropologist who lives in New York.


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