Invitations to turn magazine articles into books usually prove irresistible, and small wonder. There is the permanence and prestige offered by hard covers, plus the allure of getting paid again for work already finished. Most tempting of all, though, is the promise of more pages on which to tell a story. All magazine writers chafe at the space limitations imposed on them by parsimonious editors.
Miles Harvey's "The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime" (Random House; 405 pages; $24.95) is the fleshed-out version of an article Harvey published in Outside magazine in June 1997. His topic then was a man named Gilbert Bland, who had made a career in crime out of visiting major U.S. libraries and cutting maps out of valuable old books in order to sell these stolen treasures to unscrupulous collectors. Harvey's topic now has expanded to include accounts of how he researched and wrote both the original magazine piece and the subsequent book.
The result is a leisurely, meandering journey from which the map thief disappears for long, long stretches. Instead, Harvey relates his own fascination with cartography and reveals that as a child, he had an uncommonly keen sense of direction. Famous mapmakers of the past are resurrected and given thumbnail biographies. The sequential digressions are occasionally diverting, but some readers, trying to maintain a grip on the story's thread, may conclude, alas, that magazine editors serve a purpose.