Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Review: "The Map Thief"

I think I have managed to keep a pretty close eye on the media coverage of the E. Forbes Smiley map thefts, his ensuing plea deal and sentencing process, as well as the long aftermath. I even wrote a paper in grad school about the newspaper coverage of the thefts. So I was pleasantly delighted to read Michael Blanding's The Map Thief (Gotham Books, 2014) and find that there was much to the story that hadn't previously made its way into the news in any major way.

Blanding's book, like Miles Harvey's The Island of Lost Maps, probably ought to be required reading for anyone responsible for the cataloging, supervision, curation, collection, purchase, or sale of maps (or even rare printed materials and archives broadly conceived). It tells the story of Smiley's thefts and the ensuing legal wrangling, but Blanding also very carefully treats another important aspect of Smiley's life: his involvement with the interior Maine town of Sebec, which didn't tend to come up much when Smiley was in the news, but which had a major impact on his life and dealings.

Many of the major players in the case spoke to Blanding directly, including former NYPL maps curator Alice Hudson, and the Curator of the Leventhal Map Center at the BPL, Ronald Grim. Many current and former map dealers also spoke to Blanding, as did a whole slew of Smiley's personal friends, as well as Smiley himself (for a brief period). But even with Smiley's perspective, this book in no way turns into a remotely sympathetic portrait (for which see The Man Who Loved Books Too Much). Blanding treats Smiley's crimes with the seriousness they deserve, and makes quite clear the continued concerns among curators at several institutions that prosecutors were too quick to accept a plea deal and did not take seriously enough the post-plea revelations that Smiley had not admitted to all of the thefts.

The book manages to tell a complex story in an extremely readable way, and includes a fair amount of background material on the cartographic history of the maps themselves, the map trade, and how Smiley's actions changed the broader community. Recommended without reservation.

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