To most people who knew him, E. Forbes Smiley III appeared to be a respectable, well-to-do map dealer. However, there were some who suspected otherwise, noting his sometimes bounced checks and less than friendly business practices. Nothing could be proven until he dropped a razor blade while visiting a rare book collection, raising the librarians suspicions. The Map Thief tells Smiley’s story, from his childhood through his arrest, as well as the history of map-making and map collecting. The author shares bits of an exclusive post-arrest interview with Smiley and is able to share other personal stories from interviews with friends. He also addresses clues that Smiley might not have been entirely forthcoming about how many maps he stole.
This book is an exemplary piece of narrative nonfiction and gave me precisely the reading experience I look for from that genre. I loved the detailed descriptions of people and places which brought the story to life. I loved them even more when the author’s notes clearly showed he’d done the interviews and other research necessary to know these details. I liked that the beginning included a cast of characters, but liked even more that the author wrote so clearly, I never needed to use the cast list. I was immediately won over by the author’s decision to start the book with his journey to learn about Smiley. I actually really like narrative nonfiction where the author inserts their research adventures into the book. They give part of the story a first-person perspective, which I find very immersive.
In addition to the detailed depiction of Smiley’s story, The Map Thief includes a lot of fascinating anecdotes and fun facts about the history of maps. Prior to reading this book, I might not have realized what a rich topic this was. Since the boundaries shown on maps reflect exploration, philosophical beliefs about unexplored regions, political realities, and political aspirations, the history of maps is intimately connected with the history of human expansion. The author did a fantastic job connecting the maps he discusses to larger world events. The story flowed impressively smoothly between history and Smiley’s stories. The story also raised many ethical issues which I think will be of interest to most readers. As a reader, especially having just read about the history of maps, it was easy for me to appreciate how horrible Smiley’s breach of trust was when he removed maps from the books where they belonged. The ease with which he does so highlights the balance necessary between providing public access to our cultural treasures and adequately protecting them.
This book was a perfect blend of facts and human interest which I’d highly recommend to any fan of narrative nonfiction.This review first published on Doing Dewey.