Book Review: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby

Author: Stephen J. Hornsby
Title: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps
Publication Info: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, in association with the Library of Congress, 2017.
I’ve always loved those little maps you get for free at tourist destinations that have lots of little comical people doing touristy things on plan clearly not drawn to scale.  In fact, when I was a teenager I had two pictorial map posters, one of Greenwich, CT (the town next to my own where I attended high school) and one of Williamsburg, VA (where we went on lots of vacations before eventually moving there).  Stephen Hornsby breaks down the history of pictorial maps in this book which he says peaked in the United States from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Pictorial maps were used for education, for civic and industrial promotion campaigns, and to help people on the homefront keep up with the battles of World War II among other things.  Although this is a richly-illustrated coffee table book, my one complaint is that the images were often still too small to see the details.  Nevertheless this is a fun and interesting book about an esoteric topic of my interest.

Recommended Books:

Rating: ***1/2

States I’ve Visited

Having visited four new states recently, it’s time to update my Visited States Map courtesy of the Gas, Food, No Lodging blog.

Here’s the key:

Red means I’ve just passed through, maybe seen a thing or two.

Amber means I’ve at least slept there and seen a few things. I have a first-hand idea of what the state is like.

Blue means I’ve spent a good amount of time in that state.

Green means I’ve spent a lot of time in that state, weeks at a time on multiple visits – or lived there.

States I’ve Visited in Chronological Order


New Jersey (home from 1973-1975)

Circa 1974

New York



Connecticut (home from 1975-1991)




Massachusetts (home from 1998-present)








District of Columbia

Virginia (home from 1991-1998)

Rhode Island




West Virginia



North Carolina

South Carolina











New Hampshire















Podcasts of the Week Ending March 14

Scientific American :: Coronavirus Hot Zone: The View from the U.S. Epicenter

Insightful reporting from Washington during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

99% Invisible :: Map Quests: Political, Physical and Digital

I love maps and the curious things that they can show us.

What Next :: If Prisoners Could Vote

Felony disenfranchisement has denied millions of American their right to vote. Interviews with prisoners gets their opinion on voting and their insights into politics.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Something Cool: Visited States Map Generator

The Visited States Maps Generator at the Defocus Blog allows you to create a map of US states (and Canadian provinces if you chose) that you’ve visited, color-coded by the amount of time and commitment you’ve given to each place.

Here’s the key:

Red means I’ve just passed through, maybe seen a thing or two.

Amber means I’ve at least slept there and seen a few things. I have a first-hand idea of what the state is like.

Blue means I’ve spent a good amount of time in that state.

Green means I’ve spent a lot of time in that state, weeks at a time on multiple visits – or lived there.

Here’s my map:


I made the decision not to include states where I only changed planes at the airport (for me that would be Minnesota and Texas).  I also think that there should be a distinctive color for  states one has lived in compared to states that one has just visited a lot.  The states I’ve resided in are New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and Massachusetts.  I’ve also included New York, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire in the green category because I’ve traveled to those states frequently (the first two primarily due to family living there).

What does your map look like?  Go to and find out.

Book Review: Maphead by Ken Jennings

Author:  Ken Jennings
Maphead : charting the wide, weird world of geography
Publication Info: 
New York : Scribner, c2011.
Ken Jennings is a person I like merely because he became a celebrity by being intelligent.  Now I know he shares a common passion for maps.  As a child I used to lay out maps and atlases and study them for hours and have never lost the love of looking at maps, learning from them, or appreciating their decorative aspects.  Jennings connects with people like myself who love maps and to a greater extent geography through a series of essays that cover topics including geocaching, highpointing, travelers clubs,  road atlas rallying, map collecting and antique sales, programming Google Earth, GPS, the National Geographic Bee, as well as maps in fiction and metaphorical maps.  Jennings’ observations are illuminating and entertaining and the entire book is a delight to read.

Recommended books:
  Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England by Christopher J. Lenney, How the States Got Their Shapes Too: The People Behind the Borderlines by Mark Stein, and Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden

Book Review: Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden

“I’m going to snuggle in bed and read the geekiest book ever written, ” I proclaimed and went off to read Transit Maps of the World (2007) by Mark Ovenden. “That is a geeky book,” my wife confirmed. But it’s a book so wonderfully geeky that it goes all the way around to being cool again.

As the title implies this is a book of maps from transit systems around the world, not being too picky about a strict definition for urban transit thankfully.  The book approaches maps of metro systems from an historic and design perspective.  The book is divided into six zones with the older and larger systems getting more attention in the early zones, with less detail on the smaller and newer systems (although amazingly some of the systems in Asia that are of recent vintage are growing in leaps and bounds).

Ovenden appreciates the simplicity of a diagramatic map that eschews topography, where the lines branch out at 45 degree angles, the stations are marked with simple white circles and bulls-eyes for transfer stops, and the stations are clearly labeled in a unique font where the words do not cross the lines.  The book illustrates that most metro maps in the world are variations on these simple design themes that originated with Harry Beck’s famous map of the London Underground.  The major exception is the New York MTA map which is geographically based, and I think appropriately so due to NYC’s unique topography, although here I disagree with the author (I also found an interesting topographically-correct map of Boston’s MBTA system at a website called Radical Cartogaphry).

What I like about this book most is the author’s delight in the maps and the maps and the transit systems they represent.  There’s really a lot of positive commentary in this book and joy in public transit.  Even the MBTA, much-maligned by Bostonians, comes off sounding pretty good.  He even includes this classic, hand-drawn map of the old Boston MTA system where the elevated tracks are rendered in 3-D.

Here are a list of transit-related websites suggested by the book, plus one that makes up maps for Boston’s future that I’ve been a fan of for some time.  I think my fellow transit geeks can waste away many an hour here.

Transit maps of the world / Mark Ovenden ; Mike Ashworth, editor.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Books, 2007.
ISBN: 9780143112655
Description: 144 p. : col. maps ; 24 cm.

Book Review: How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein

How the States Got Their Shapes (2008) by Mark Stein is exactly what the title says it is: a state-by-state description of how the borders of the fifty states were laid out (even Hawaii, which is more complicated than it looks).  Some general observations show how the US government tried to create all states of equal size.  The east coast states don’t count because they were laid out by kings and English charters.  That the rest of the states are not of equal size is due to a variety of factors: topographical borders that make more sense, confliciting land claims, land awarded to states for land lost to other states (seemingly an endless cycle), and sometimes just plain bad surveying that held up.

Still the efforts of the government can be seen in the borders.  The parrallel at 36°30′, which originated in error as the border between Virginia and North Carolina spreads across many states as far west as the Texas panhandle because it become the barrier between slave & free states after the Missouri Compromise in 1820.  The government also created tiers of states with equal height (North & South Dakota, Nebraska, & Kansas) or equal width (Washington, Oregon, North & South Dakota, Wyoming, & Colorado) that create some shared qualities even if there’s not equality of square mileage.

Some of my favorite facts learned from this book:

  • New Hampshire gained land from Massachusetts because the king wanted to reward good Anglicans at the expense of the Puritans
  • There’s a little piece of Delaware across the Delaware Bay attached to New Jersey!
  • The easternmost counties of West Virginia actually wished to remain part of the Confederacy but they were occupied by Union troops and attached to the counties that seceded from Virginia
  • The corner cut-off from Utah is due to a mountain range that makes a right angle at that point and thus would have made the valley it surrounds inaccessible from the rest of Utah
  • The Great Lakes states had the borders modified and adjusted several times mostly to allow all the states to have a window on the lakes
  • There are islands in the Hawaiian chain that are not part of the state (including Midway) even though islands to their east & west are part of Hawaii

Unfortunately, the writing is a bit dry.  There are some good stories to be told about the colorful characters who influenced the creation of the state borders, but Stein sticks with just the facts. It also suffers from repetition and overuse of rhetorical questions (“So why does the northern border have a chunk missing?”).  Each chapter also ends with kind of morality lesson about what the particular state’s borders can tell us, and its pretty corny.  This book may work better as a reference book than as something to read cover to cover.  On the other hand, as a nerdy ten-year old I would have ate this up, so it may be good for kids too.

This book has inspired an idea though, based on my childhood home state Connecticut and its claims of land from sea-to-sea.  I think it would be great to travel across the United States only within the boundaries of land once claimed by Connecticut.  One could visit some interesting landmarks such as the New York oblong, the site of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars in Pennsylvania, and Case Western Reserve college in Ohio.  West of there I guess one would have to look for evidence of Nutmeggers in in westward expansion.

Author Stein, Mark, 1951-
Title How the states got their shapes / Mark Stein.
Publication Info. New York : Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2008.
Description xv, 332 p. : maps, 24 cm.

Book Review: The Fabric of America by Andro Linklater

The Fabric of America: how our borders and boundaries shaped the country and forged our national identity (2007) by Andro Linklater is built on a thesis that the idea of the United States being defined by the frontier and rugged individualism – with Frederick Jackson Turner as a major proponent – is not true.  Instead of the frontier, Linklater believes that our nation is defined by our frontiers, the national boundaries fixed by government agencies.  Within these boundaries, Linklater contends instead of wanting less government, pioneers brought government with them in the form of surveying, land claims, squatters’ rights, and establishment of local governments.

Most of the book doesn’t really stick with the thesis but instead is a history of the United States’ borders.  A major portion of the book tells the story of Andrew Ellicot who surveyed the boundaries of Pennsylvania (picking up where Mason & Dixon left off), Washington, DC, and the boundary between the U.S. and Spanish Florida. There are lots of interesting historical facts about how the nation and states took their shape as well as the practice of surveying, of which Ellicot was an innovator.

The portions of the book from Ellicot’s death in 1820 to the present feel rushed and unfocused.   Linklater’s theory about how our nation’s boundaries defined us feel tacked on to the more interesting historical narrative.  Still, this was an interesting and quick historical read.

Hyperactive Hyperlinks

Here’s another post that’s nothing more than a collection of links, many of them silly, the majority introduced to me by Metafilter.

Abandoned But Not Forgotten is a collection of photos of abandoned, historical, and unusual locations from around the world. Beware of the slow loading vintage web design (somewhat apropos to the topic actually) but it’s worth slogging through to see the cool photos.

PCWorld collects The Strangest Sights in Google Earth, which of course is the same as our own planet earth but frozen in time and shared with everyone who lives here. Again, be wary of some crummy web design.

A clever video in which two young men celebrate the city that rocks: Colonial Williamsburg. Funny in that they don’t openly mock CW but let the incongruities of music and images speak for themselves.

PinchHitter 2 is a frustrating and addictive baseball game that will take you from the sandlot to the majors.

If you like ugly, but tasty, fruit and vegetables, you’ll enjoy the stark images of the mutatocollection. The oddity here is that many of these are actually naturally grown vegetables as opposed to the genetic mutations that pass as “perfect.”

Is the world of Gil Thorp in the Matrix? Could explain the oddities of that comic strip. I particularly like Clambake as Morpheus.

From world travelers, a collection of 20 funny signs from around the world. Reminds me of a sign I saw in Ireland near a cliff’s edge showing a car flying over a cliff. The Irish are not subtle.

Finally, a demographic study of Pluggers and They’ll Do It Every Time, a scientific analysis of the two head scratching, anachronistic comics drawn on suggestions mailed in by readers.

While I’m posting links, I may as well introduce some recent additions to the blogroll:

  • Bringing Home the Word: Exploring the Bible Through the Catholic Lectionary – Fairly self-explanatory title, good reading for lectors like myself.
  • Digital Campus – A biweekly discussion of how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums. This is actually a podcast, but they post links relating to the topics discussed on the show.
  • Francesco Explains It All – Blog by the creator of Sally Forth.
  • History Conversations – An occasional dialogue with historians and history lovers about their interests, their ideas, and their lives in history. A podcast from the creator of Found History.
  • lower east side librarian – A personal/professional library blog by a librarian who is interested in/expect to write about zines and alternative press publications in libraries, library activism, open source technology applications and culture, and lolcats.
  • Ms. Magazine – More than a magazine, a movement. More of a feed than a blog.
  • Nobody Loves Rusty – A tribute/mockery blog for Mark Trail.
  • Paste Magazine – Updates on signs of life in music, film, and culture.
  • pazonada – A spiff local photo blog.
  • Pitchfork Media – New music reviews to help me feel old.
  • separated by a common language – Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK.
  • Stat of the Day – This and that about baseball stats. From the people who brought you Baseball Reference.
  • Uncontrolled Vocabulary – A live discussion of news, trends and topics in librarianship. Another cool podcast that’s like The McLaughlin Group, but with Librarians. Useful links posted on the blog after the show.

You may also notice on the sidebar that I’ve added links to my new Library Thing profile and catalog.  I should be adding books over time.

Great Online Tool for Walkers

Just a quick post to share the Gmaps Pedometer. Basically the creators of this tool have modified Google Maps so that one may draw a line on the map and measure distances for walks. Should be very handy for runners and bicyclists as well. Certainly a nice alternative to when I’ve tried to map a route online and have the mapping tool direct me to take an Interstate highway.