screenshot186 Remember the days before GPS? Before even mapquest? When you actually had to pick up a map or an atlas to figure out where you were going? Did you ever think about maps much beyond that- a mechanism to get you from “here” to “there”? I hadn’t. But reading Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief has made me look at maps with an entirely new perspective.

From the publisher’s summary: In 2005, the respected and esteemed antiquarian map dealer E. Forbes Smiley was caught red-handed while delicately exacto-knifing a rare map out of a book at the Yale University Library. He would later confess to the theft of 97 maps valued at more than $3 million total, and would serve 42 months in prison for his crimes.

It almost sounds stranger-than-fiction, or like the beginning of a really good mystery novel, but it’s all true, and Michael Blanding delves into this fascinating story of high-stakes crime in THE MAP THIEF (Gotham Books, May 29, 2014, Hardcover and eBook).

THE MAP THIEF explores our fascination with maps and how they went from being practical instruments in the days of the New World explorers to highly coveted objects. Through interviews with all the key players, including an exclusive sit-down with Smiley before he went quiet, Blanding uncovers the story of the man behind the thefts, the cutthroat industry that consumed him, and the implications of his crimes on dealers, librarians, collectors, and map lovers alike. And although Smiley swears he has admitted to all of the maps he stole, libraries claim he stole hundreds more – and offer intriguing clues to prove it.

I thought The Map Thief a fascinating read.  The arrogance of Forbes Smiley, the audacity with which he stole and resold these maps made for some compelling reading.  I still have mixed feelings about Forbes Smiley.  I’m not sure if he’s truly reformed or not.

Blanding provides some historical perspective of the stolen maps and atlases, and a thorough appendix of illustrations.  He also puts a human face on the impact of Smiley’s actions on the his friends, colleagues, and competitors.

This is not a book I would normally have picked up to read, but a publisher who’s recommended a number of other books I have enjoyed suggested this one, and she is spot on.

This is compelling non-fiction. Not action packed,  and subtle in many of its observations, Blanding manages to portray the very humanness of everyone involved.  Equally compelling to the story of Smiley himself is the map collecting subculture and the negative-publicity-adverse museums and libraries who were Smiley’s victims.

If you’re looking for a read that is a bit off the beaten path, but tells a truly fascinating true story, The Map Thief is one I recommend.