The Power of Maps

By Denis Wood

The Power of Maps explores “the mapmaker’s bias…how maps are not impartial reference objects, but rather instruments of communication, persuasion, and power.”

This seems like a unique approach to the study of maps, treating not simply the practice of mapmaking, but the weird human goals and biases that underlie it. In the introduction Wood explains that not only do maps convey information, they have real power; they do work.

The book’s topics include: the interests maps serve; how maps are embedded in history and society; how maps transform reality; how the interests maps serve are masked; signs, myths, legends, and codes.

He explores the mapmaking practice, both close-reading maps and going deep in historical analysis. The thesis is clear and the writing cogent, and he provides great examples throughout. Some that stand out include: maps drawn by children; Tolkien’s fantasy-world maps; a variety of map projections; and representations of geological surveys.

One favorite section catalogs ten different “cartographic codes” — a remarkable range of systems of representation and meaning, including what he calls “codes of intrasignification”. Similarly fascinating is a section on the “ethnogenesis of hillsigns”.

There’s a whole complex language around how we talk about and understand maps. And it’s helpful to gain an appreciation for this because, as Wood remarks, “maps are heavy responsibilities”.


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