- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Capturing that passion in perfect pitch, The Island of Lost Maps is an intriguing story of exploration, craftsmanship, villainy, and the lure of the unknown.
"Beguiling…as with the best of maps, the more one looks, the more fascinating and intriguing it all becomes."
—Simon Winchester, author of the Professor and the Madman
They controlled the region for more than three hundred years-an entire empire built on getting one's hands on the right maps. By the end of the eighteenth century, that empire's most profitable export was a little bean, which the Dutch had begun to grow in Java in 1696. When brewed this bean produced an exhilarating beverage that the Dutch called koffie-a word passed on to the Malay and Indonesian languages as kopi.
Which brings me to the second story on my wall, a December 21, 1995, Chicago Tribune report about another man who got into trouble for stealing maps:
TAMARAC, Fla.-The small, subdued man in khaki pants asked to visit the rare book room. Library curators checked his credentials, logging him as a visitor from Florida. He went inside.
Minutes later, pandemonium-the man fleeing, security guards chasing, police asking why anyone would steal a map from a 232-year-old library book and sprint through the streets of Baltimore.
Clues, it turns out, rest in Tamarac-home to Gilbert Bland, Jr., alias James Perry, a suspect in the theft ... at Johns Hopkins University and perhaps scores more [burglaries of old maps] from libraries along the East Coast.
I had no idea, the first time I read those words, that they would soon be chiseled into my mind. Yet I do remember feeling an unusually intense jolt of curiosity, as fiery and bracing as the coffee I had raised to my lips. In those days I spent a great deal of time at the Kopi, a self-proclaimed "traveler's café" whose walls were adorned with masks from Bali and shelves were filled with Lonely Planet guides to far-flung destinations. I was then the literary critic for Outside magazine, a great job but one that was beginning to wear on my patience. The books I read were about people who climbed Himalayan peaks or rode bicycles through Africa or sailed wooden boats across the Atlantic or trekked into restricted areas of China. These tales of adventure filled my days and my imagination, yet my own life was anything but adventurous, the hours spent slogging through book after book in a dark corner of that coffeehouse or staring endlessly into a computer screen. The interior of the Kopi was ringed by clocks, each one showing the time in some distant locale, and as I watched the weeks tick away in Timbuktu and Juneau and Goa and Denpasar and Yogyakarta, I began to long for an adventure of my own. Or maybe adventure isn't quite the word. It was not that I had any particular desire to do something death-defying; what I wanted was a quest, a goal, a riddle to solve, a destination. My craving, I believe, was not unlike the one Joseph Conrad described in Heart of Darkness:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up I will go there."
Looking back now, I think that what Conrad called "blank spaces" had much to do with why that article so completely commandeered my imagination from the start. In retrospect, I think I was intrigued not so much by what the story said but by what it left looming between the lines. What was it about these mysterious old maps that people found so alluring? And what kind of person would wander so far and put so much on the line for their acquisition? Who was this Gilbert Bland? I did not yet know how difficult these questions were. I did not yet know that trying to answer them would take up a huge portion of my life. I did not yet know that, even as I sat sipping coffee, my quest had begun.
All I knew was that I had to know more. I had heard about the bizarre case of Stephen Carrie Blumberg, who, during the 1970s and 1980s, removed as many as 23,600 books and manuscripts from 268 libraries in forty-five states, two Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia. Consumed by what he called "the passion to collect, "Blumberg employed an astonishing variety of tricks to build his illicit collection. He picked locks; he stole keys; he threw volumes out of library windows; he crawled through ductwork and hid in elevator shafts; he assumed the identity of a University of Minnesota professor; he even altered books, while still inside a library, so that they appeared to be his own. Then he would haul his takings to a house in rural Ottumwa, Iowa, where he filled nine thirteen-foot-high rooms with books shelved from floor to ceiling and meticulously arranged them according to a catalog system of his own making. He somehow convinced himself that he was not really stealing but "rescuing" the books from institutions that did not give them the attention and care they deserved. Although his collection was worth up to $20 million, Blumberg never sold a single book. I wondered if Gilbert Bland had a similar compulsion for hoarding hot maps.
But I was just as fascinated by the possibility that Bland was in it for the money. For centuries thieves have reaped big rewards by catering to the peculiar needs of collectors. In our own culture extensive black markets exist for everything from art to animals and sports memorabilia-but history offers some even more outlandish examples. In the twelfth and again in the sixteenth century, for instance, the popularity of a medicinal elixir made from, of all things, the flesh of Egyptian mummies led to a booming business in grave robbing. 'Alas, poor Egypt!" wrote Louis Reutter de Rosement. 'After having known civilization at its zenith, after having sacrificed its all to respect its dead, it was now forced to see the eternal dwellings of its venerated kings despoiled, profaned, and violated and the bodies of its sons turned into drugs for foreigners."
With our own tedious era sadly devoid of contraband pharaoh goo, Bland's alleged crime spree seemed about as interesting a subject as a writer-especially a writer with his own lifelong love of maps-could hope to find. I began to look into the caper and discovered that it was even more extensive than was originally reported. According to the FBI, Bland had stolen maps from at least seventeen libraries across the United States and two in Canada. He was, it turned out, the Al Capone of cartography, the greatest American map thief in history
I took the story to my editors at Outside, who found the case deliciously offbeat and assigned a lengthy feature on Mr. Bland. I thought I would finish it in six weeks. But when it finally appeared in the June 1997 issue, I had worked on it for more than a year-and my labors had only just begun. By the time I completed research on this book, the investigation had consumed four years of my life.
Bland proved to be an extremely enigmatic and unwilling subject and, despite it all, a fascinating one. He was a chameleon. He changed careers and families without looking back; when a daughter from his first marriage asked him for help with buying a car, he refused, saying, "You're a stranger." He could seem to switch age before your eyes, appearing worldweary one minute and boyish the next. Medium height, medium weight, middle-aged, middle everything-he was a cipher, a blank slate; in cartographic terms, terra incognita. He was Bland: "1. Characterized by a moderate, undisturbing, or tranquil quality. 2. Lacking distinctive character."
Because he turned down all my requests to interview him, both for the article and, later, for this book-I was forced to build my profile the slow, hard way: visiting the places he worked and lived; walking through crime scenes; talking to family members, friends, business associates, and victims; methodically piecing together his past through criminal records, court documents, military files, computer databases, and other sources of public record. The more snooping I did, the more I began to see my quest for information as similar to that of the Houtman brothers, and my attempts to make sense of it like the task faced by Mercator. Filling in a life, it turned out, was like filling in a map, and my search for Gilbert Bland soon transformed from an investigation into an adventure. Along the way, I happened upon a curious subculture made up of map historians, map librarians, map dealers, and map collectors-all gripped by an obsession both surreal and sublime. Like the explorers of old, I found myself heading farther and farther into strange waters, never quite sure if I had found what I was looking for, but endlessly filled with bemusement and wonder.
|Introduction: Strange Waters||ix|
|1.||Mr. Peabody and Mr. Nobody||3|
|3.||The Map Mogul||45|
|4.||An Approaching Storm||79|
|5.||How to Make a Map, How to Take a Map||95|
|6.||The Invisible Crime Spree||107|
|7.||A Brief History of Cartographic Crime||135|
|9.||The Waters of Paradise||217|
|10.||The Joy of Discovery||239|
|11.||The Island of Lost Maps||273|
|13.||Mr. Bland, I Presume||305|
|Epilogue: Lifting Off||327|