Frank Jacobs (@FrankJacobs) is a journalist, blogger and author. Originally from Belgium, he currently lives in Denmark with his girlfriend Hanne. He thought his map obsession was a rare affliction until 2006, when he started blogging about Strange Maps. Seventeen million hits and one book later, he’s still looking for next week’s strangest map.
Q: What makes a map strange? Would you say you have an innate sense of geohipsterism that allows you to declare a map strange at a glance?
A: I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you. Seriously, though: Strange Maps is my attempt to stay in touch with the sense of wonder that cartography instilled in me back when I was ten years old and got my first atlas. Maps are not just about other places, they’re a place unto themselves: a playground where the world and your imagination can meet.
That playground-like quality is what I look for in maps, at least when I’m looking for maps to post on the blog. There has to be a eureka moment. Looking for a new one is exciting, because I never can tell exactly what gives a map that extra dimension. Perhaps it’s the historical anecdote it illustrates. It could be the painstaking detail — or the lack of it.
I never know where the next map will come from. That element of chance makes hunting for strange maps fun, even eight years into the blog. Nevertheless, I do know that the next strange map will fit at least three criteria: it will have a compelling backstory, it will look nice, and it will be too strange for my old school atlas.
Q: Many of your maps delve into the realm of alternative histories. Others cover historic anomalies. Some just have crazy designs. Tell us a bit about the different maps and how you find them.
A: Put a few alternative history buffs in a room — a chatroom, most likely — and soon you’ll be inundated with maps. No other community produces as many potential candidates for Strange Maps as the alt-history crowd. Many are beautifully made. Yet I generally steer clear of them, because the historical hypotheticals they’re built upon are generally too fanciful or too obscure to interest me. There have been a few exceptions, unsurprisingly often involving Nazis, as recently with that map of The Man in the High Castle, the TV series based on Philip K. Dick’s eponymous ‘What If’ classic.
I’m happy for Strange Maps to just be a grab bag of maps from as many different backgrounds as possible. There’s lots of great examples of maps used as art, for example, some of which I’ve featured on the blog: Kim Dingle’s sublimely simple United Shapes of America — a canvas filled with the shape of the U.S. as drawn from memory by a high school class. Or Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman, obsessively detailing his obsessions over Englishness. On the other end of the spectrum, there are statistical maps, like Joseph Minard’s stunning chart of the deadly carnage that was Napoleon’s Russia campaign. Or the Inglehart-Welzel map, which plots out countries according to the secularity and self-expressiveness of their society on a map that is cultural rather than geographic. In between are fantasy maps like Tolkien’s, adventure story maps like Treasure Island, maps made for propaganda or satire. As long as I can mix it all up, I’m happy.
Q: You’re from Belgium, a cartographer’s delight of a country with three official languages, a rich history of border changes, and of course the famous Baarle-Hertog exclave. Do you think this caused your interest in strange maps?
A: Growing up where I did was a bit surreal for a map-lover: travel south for 30 kilometres, and you’re in a different culture, but still in the same country. Go east for as far, and you’re in the same language area, but in a different country. It certainly reinforced my fascination with those man-made lines that traversed the maps in my atlas. Baarle might be Belgium’s best-known border anomaly, but there are other, equally fascinating ones. Like the Esperanto micronation of Amikejo, set up in a neutral zone that transformed Belgium’s border tripoint with the Netherlands and Germany into one of the world’s rare international quadripoints. Or the five German exclaves, separated from the Heimat by a railway track that was placed under Belgian sovereignty after the First World War.
Some say Belgium itself is an experiment in surrealism: an accident of history, a collision of cultures, and the frequent object of mockery by our more important neighbours. Belgians have a hard time convincing themselves they live in a ‘proper’ country. No wonder Magritte — he of Ceci n’est pas une pipe — is our ‘national’ painter. So yes, growing up in that anomaly of a country definitely shaped my interest in surreal cartography.
Q: Relatedly, has any specific culture, region, or time period produced more strange maps than others?
A: Yes — although it’s a bit unfair to hold it against them: the cartographers of the Age of Exploration produced a mass of maps of new lands, many of them drawn up on little more than hearsay. Take the history of California’s depiction as an island, which occurred on and off well into the 1700s. Or all those phantom islands dotting the North Atlantic, products of tall tales, wishful thinking or just an attempt by failed explorers to get enough funding to have another go at glory.
Q: What makes for a good border dispute? Do your maps ever lead to flame wars?
A: If you value your free time, steer well clear of Balkan irredentism. Once — fortunately, a long time ago by now — I posted a map of Greater Albania, which included not only Kosovo, but also parts of Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia proper. It didn’t take very long before commenters from all countries involved were insulting each other, and each other’s mothers in the comments section.
Another example of maps ruffling feathers was that faulty Google Map of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Both countries came quite close to fighting over the disputed border as a result.
Q: As more and more people use maps all the time via their phone, it seems maps are increasingly moving out of the realm of the cartonerds and into the mainstream. What’s your take on this trend? Are maps a fad or is this the new norm?
A: Humans made maps before they could write. I think that’s why they appeal so directly to us: they’re humanity’s primeval common language, in a way. As technology embeds maps in ever more aspects of our daily life, I suspect we’re going towards a schism in cartography, separating the merely utilitarian from the purely beautiful. It’s pretty clear which side I am on. I’m in the vinyl section of the shop, listening to some old Mercators, scratches and all, while the kids figure out how to upload their jogging route to the interweb.
Q: Does the burden of having to decide what is strange ever weigh on you?
A: No, it’s a joy, and that’s why I’m still doing it. Also, I get so many great ideas and maps sent in by readers of the blog that it would be a shame to stop before I’ve gone through all of them.
In case you’ve sent one in back in 2010 and are still waiting: there’s about 5,000 suggestions waiting for an answer. That does weigh on me. How much does a secretary cost?
Q: What’s your personal favourite map?
A: It’s like with your own children: it varies. And sometimes I hate them all. But honestly, I get asked that question a lot, and I usually have a different answer. So I guess I don’t have a favourite map. I do have a few favourite mapmakers. How much I wouldn’t give for a nice long talk with Heinrich Bünting, who made the Whole World in a Cloverleaf map back in the 16th century. And while I’m at it, I’m also inviting Richard Edes Harrison, whose brilliant map perspectives arrived just in time to give people a sense of the global scale of World War Two. And how about all those British generals who drew half of the world’s borders? To misquote Jaws: I think we need a bigger map room.