Why the big, gorgeous Cartographica Extraordinaire shouldn't sit unopened

Have you ever bought a book for the sole purpose of displaying it on a table? Neither have I. The concept of "coffee-table" books is, to me, repellent. It implies that what's inside is utterly, unabashedly beside the point; what matters, to the owner, is that the subject reflect well on his taste and that the cover go well with the furniture.

I've recently come across a number of books intended merely for decoration. At a furniture store in L.A. I encountered a marble table covered with volumes in a language I couldn't identify, bound with twine in stacks of five and sold in bulk. They were gorgeous -- and sad. In a design magazine I saw porcelain books for $120 apiece. No need to open them; they just sit on your table and look pretty next to a bowl of lemons. A Pottery Barn catalog revealed a wall of shelves filled floor to ceiling with books, all of them red -- which presumably contrasted nicely with the white duvet. But you mustn't go too wild: As one newspaper article noted, "Too many books can buckle cheap shelves, edge out favorite trinkets and transform artfully arranged bookcases into decorating disasters." Heavens!

This is not to say that I object to books looking pretty: I want good ones to sell, and handsome covers can help that happen. Nor do I object to picture books per se. Books as objects are fine, too; if they weren't, I wouldn't be so into the book arts, like printing and binding. I only mind when a book that someone has taken the time to write and assemble gets treated like any old prop.

Map of San Francisco, Compiled From 
Latest Surveys & Containing All Late 
Extensions & Division of Wards, 1852.
Map of San Francisco, Compiled From Latest Surveys & Containing All Late Extensions & Division of Wards, 1852.

By some estimates, Cartographica Extraordinaire: The Historical Map Transformed by David Rumsey (of San Francisco) and Edith M. Punt (of Redlands, Calif.), which came out in March, could be considered a coffee-table book. It's enormous: more than 13 by 12 inches. It's glamorously produced -- the dust jacket (which includes a "French fold," an expensive and mostly unnecessary flourish) fades from an 1842 map of Boston to a satellite image of the same area taken in October 2002. Nearly every page of heavy archival paper features a lovingly detailed picture, starting with the title page's colorful 1816 map of the United States and ending with a thumbnail version of a 2002 montage of Lewis & Clark's expedition that combines historical maps, land surveys, atlas information, and Landsat imagery from NASA. The whole package is, in a word, yummy.

But it would be a shame to buy Cartographica Extraordinaireand not read it. It is true that you can see every single one of the title's 120-plus images (along with about 10,000 more) on www.davidrumsey.com, the Web site that has barely begun to preserve and document Rumsey's personal collection of around 150,000 maps, charts, globes, bound volumes, and geography schoolbooks. That site, says Rumsey, is "an unmediated experience": "You make your own narrative." The purpose of this book, then, is to tell a very specific story -- not just about maps but about the world -- the kind of thing you can't easily do online. It's also a labor of love.

When I arrive at David Rumsey's house -- a tall, late-1890s Victorian situated between Cole Valley and the Haight, in which he lives alone -- there's a FedEx package on the porch. It's a gift from the New York Public Library, at which the 60-year-old recently spoke, wrapped in paper designed to resemble a street map of NYC. Inside is a glass paperweight revealing -- you guessed it -- a map of the East Coast. On a table just inside the door are two tiny teacups and saucers imprinted with map patterns, which Rumsey tells me his 2-year-old granddaughter loves to play with. The walls are filled with artworks of every kind -- from Rumsey's own photographic collages (one huge piece, Radar Ranch, 1991, is an evocative Hockney-esque contemplation of some land Rumsey co-owns) to paintings, drawings, and photographs by his friends. Some of the art looks vaguely geographic; most of it doesn't. The real maps are downstairs.

In Cartographica Extraordinaireand on www.davidrumsey.com, you can take a virtual tour of Rumsey's library, which occupies the ground floor of his house. In person, it's almost overwhelming. Rumsey, a compact man with bright blue eyes behind glasses and a short crop of gray hair, shows me around. As on the floor above, each wall here is filled with images -- mostly historical maps, including a 1915 one of San Francisco. Rolled up and stacked in cabinets are "thousands" more. On shelves and every flat surface are "thousands" of atlases and books of exploration. Leaning against a case are two volumes by the famous cartographer Jean Dominique Cassini: Each book is about 2 feet by 3 feet. Rumsey's reference section includes around 400 volumes about maps and mapmaking; a table is covered with 50 to 60 globes, including a few that are mere inches in diameter. Flat maps rest in Mylar sleeves in drawers. Sea charts lie on a desk. Stacked near a post are antique pocket maps; Rumsey estimates that he has 800 to 900 of those.

The library is the result of years of obsession. Rumsey studied and taught film, photography, performance art, and electronic music ("It was the '60s") before moving into real estate development and finance, where he made the money to amass his collection. "I've always loved maps, from when I was little," he says, but he first ran into an old map when he was in his late 30s. It suggested not only space but also history, another love. For the next 20 years he indulged his passion, focusing on North and South America in the 18th and 19th centuries ("If you don't give yourself brackets, you'll be sorry"). Collecting maps, he says, gave him the revenge on real estate, which "wasn't where I was meant to be." It also brought him back to art.

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