Tuesday, July 01, 2014

“The Map Thief” by Michael Blanding – Maps Are the Real Treasure

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding (Book cover)
Maps have held a rather important place in most of human history, serving as indispensable navigation tools through this vast world, and in some cases, leading to something very specific, something most people hope to be treasure. What many people do not realize is that the maps themselves are often worth a fortune, and are more important than the destinations they allow people to reach. And so, an entire criminal underworld was formed around the idea of stealing rare maps.

In The Map Thief by Michael Blanding, we are taken knee-deep into that world, or more precisely, Forbes Smiley, a former respectable antiquarian who turned to his particular life of crime, seeing the enormous potential it held for him. Blanding takes great care to amass all the information necessary to convey the man's story, ranging from the history of various maps to interviews with those who are in any way related to this trade or to Smiley himself. In other words, Blanding tries to bring us the most complete look possible into a rare world, one which had its existence kept as a secret to most of us.

In terms of how fascinating it is, The Map Thief will certainly cater to those who are interested in art-related crimes, such as painting thievery and those sorts of things. As it turns out, there are countless different factors to take into account when one chooses to become a map thief, and being taken on a hand-guided tour through this world doesn't make you hate or sympathize with those involved in it (not necessarily at least), but rather, it allows you to understand what they do, how they do it, what pushes them to do it, and what risks they have to face day in and day out. We are treated to stories from Smiley's career, stories of other map thieves, the ones charged with bringing them down, and plenty more to keep the entertainment factor way up there.

As far as the writing itself goes, Blanding is indeed a thorough journalist with a keen sense of conciseness; he doesn't mince words, and he says exactly what he needs to, or at least, what he feels he needs to in order to convey all the information he wants to. The writing feels very organic and makes the whole thing into a story, one which could actually be put into novel form one of these days. In other words, it's a real pleasure to read, it flows nicely and smoothly with there being no, or at least very few irregularities.

All in all, The Map Thief is certainly one of the more interesting biographical books out there, treating a seldom-discussed subject, one which turns out to be far more interesting than its premise would have you believe. As was said before, if you are into art-related criminal history, then this book is a must-get.

Michael Blanding

Michael Blanding

Personal site

Michael Blanding is an award-winning author who had his first book published back in 2010: The Coke Machine. He has been a writer for most of his life, touching on a number of topics from politics to social justice and traveling, and has appeared in publications such as The Boston Globe, The Nation and Consumers Digest.

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