The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

by Miles Harvey

Published by Random House

405 pages, 2000

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Mapping the Story of Gilbert Bland

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


This small gem of a book seems to break nearly every rule of non-fiction writing, but nevertheless comes up shining like buried treasure. Several years ago travel journalist Miles Harvey became intrigued with the strange case of Gilbert Bland, a man as ordinary-looking as his name who had recently been charged with the theft of some 250 priceless antique maps. Bland stole the maps a few at a time, using a method he had perfected over years of practice. He would slip into the rare books section of a university library, select a previously-targeted rare map from an atlas, razor-blade it out in seconds, hide it under his coat and slip out again.

So anonymous did he appear and so lax the security in these institutions, that he eluded detection until 1995, when he was caught with the goods outside the Peabody Library in Baltimore. As the story slowly unfolded, it became apparent that Bland had been making a tidy profit with these hot maps from his antiques store in Florida, fooling even reputable dealers into thinking his business was aboveboard.

Miles Harvey could have chosen to tell Bland's strange, crooked story with the clinical detachment of a detective on the trail of a mystery. Instead he became hopelessly entangled with his subject-matter, losing most of his objectivity along the way. Perhaps it all started with his own fascination with maps: "I am neither a map scholar nor a map collector," he writes, "but if there's one thing I should make clear about myself from the start it's that I am an incorrigible mapperist, an ecstatic contemplator of things cartographic." It was a short step from ecstatic contemplation to virtual obsession with a man he calls "the Al Capone of cartography, the greatest American map thief in history."

The problem with this description of Bland is that it implies a colorful, flamboyant character enjoying a mad spree of cartographic crime across the country. The truth is, except for the fact that he got away with stealing, Gilbert Bland is just not a very interesting person. A map dealer who knew him described him this way: "Mr. Bland was bland. He looked bland, he sounded bland, he acted bland. There was no personality. Nothing there."

A chronic misfit from an unhappy home, he was never terribly successful at anything he tried. Even his service in Vietnam consisted of a relatively-safe desk job. His rather pathetic life was punctuated with business failures and petty crime, such as car theft and credit card fraud. Though he was sometimes caught, he did have a certain genius for manipulating the legal system so that he nearly always eluded punishment.

So how did Harvey manage to write such an entertaining and absorbing book about this sad, even rather dull man? It must have something to do with the author's sheer zeal for the world of maps, "that curious subculture made up of map historians, map librarians, map dealers, and map collectors -- all gripped by an obsession both surreal and sublime." He talks to them all and their eccentricities and passion for map lore help to leaven a story that might otherwise have fallen flat.

But there are other reasons for the book's success. Like many an adventurer before him, Harvey is willing to digress from the beaten path, to take long detours from Bland's story into the exotic world of medieval exploration where monsters lurked around the borders of the known world. Many an early explorer got away with more bald-faced lies than Bland could even imagine.

A man named Shedel came back from India with reports that "some men have dog's heads, talk by barking, eat birds, and wear animal skins, while others have just one eye in the middle of their foreheads and eat only animals. Libya has a breed of people who are male on the right side of their bodies and female on the left."

Gullible Europeans had no way of disproving these wild stories and often their absurd inaccuracies showed up as illustrations on maps. (One of the many amusing plates in the book is a 16th-century map of Guiana decorated with a drawing of a headless man with eyes on his shoulders.) Whole countries were included on hearsay, or a continent might be casually left out. Small fortunes could be made by authors who "might not even have bothered to leave home .... Over the past few years, for example, some experts have begun to question whether Marco Polo ever actually traveled to the Far East."

From profiling the scam-artists of antiquity, Harvey takes us into the high-stakes world of modern map dealing, where a single chart can command upwards of $2 million. Here we meet W. Graham Arader III, "the Bill Gates of the rare map world," with a personality every bit as flamboyant as Bland's isn't. Arader, arrogant yet oddly charming, swashbuckles his way from one acquisition to the next with a boldness in direct contrast to Bland's sneaky, slippery ways.

Yet for all these welcome digressions, Gilbert Bland still forms the heart of the story, gripping the author's imagination with an intensity that is sometimes downright baffling. Harvey admits that his need to collect minute details on Bland's sordid life borders on the unhealthy. It becomes a kind of chase, a hunt for prey which always eludes him at the last moment. Bland's consistent refusal to cooperate with Harvey is understandable, given the fact that the book exposes his criminal past. But if he had taken the time to read the manuscript, he could not have failed to notice the writer's compassion.

Harvey wants so badly to understand this man that he ends up psychoanalyzing him, lending him more depth than he probably possesses. He becomes even more introspective when he turns the searchlight on himself, looking for underlying reasons for his obsession: "With each passing month, it seemed that I was searching less for an actual person named Gilbert Bland than for some dark and unexplored part of my own existence."

So what we have here is a book about a man who isn't very interesting, written without the necessary objectivity, digressing from the subject matter at every turn, full of sometimes far-fetched psychoanalytic interpretation (such as Harvey's comparison of Bland to Sir Walter Raleigh in his need for conquest) -- and the result is a wonderful, quirky, funny, intense book, rich in folklore and history, full of interesting characters and enlivened with weird fragments of medieval mappery. What Harvey accomplishes in this book is probably both more and less than he intended, but as with many a great adventure, the destination is far less important than the fascination of the journey. | January 2001


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.