ReadingRoom

Man reviews his own book, likes it

John McCrystal reviews a book of maps by someone called John McCrystal.

John McCrystal is better known as a ghostwriter and editor more than as the author of books of his own: he has assisted with the writing process of well over 50 non-fiction titles by others. You have to go back to 2007 and the glory days of his career, when On the Buses: the history of the New Zealand Bus and Coach Association was scandalously overlooked by a national book awards panel, to find the last title to appear under his name only. He returns as a sole author with his new book Singing the Trail: The story of mapping Aotearoa New Zealand.

The book has a distinct bias towards old maps. Good. Everyone loves an old map — the faint lines and faded colours on stained parchment or paper, the mysterious names and legends, depicting the familiar as re-imagined or half-known. It's only on page 210 of Singing The Trail, well over two-thirds of the way in, that a 20th Century map appears. And apart from a desultory mention here and there and a sole image of New Zealand captured from space, the book doesn’t deal at all with contemporary cartography.

But the preponderance of old material means that it's a very pretty book. It’s been given the treatment by the publisher, with gorgeous, embossed hard covers and heavy, glossy stock and in a near-square format that allows both landscape and portrait maps to be reproduced to very good effect.

A fair portion of the book is devoted to Polynesian maps: he includes stories in the definition of "map", as well as including one of the most intriguing artefacts associated with the earliest encounters between Europeans and Polynesians - the map drawn at James Cook’s behest by the young Tahitian navigator-priest, Tupaia. This, as McCrystal  points out, isn’t a New Zealand map at all — it doesn’t depict New Zealand, and no New Zealanders were involved in its making — but it does serve as a kind of Rosetta stone for those seeking to understand how Polynesians went about determining their place in the world and its relation to other places in the world.

As for Cook, McCrystal is plainly a fan, and regrets the current trend of freighting the Yorkshireman with the entire weight of what was done under colonialism, which he seems to think isn’t altogether fair. But nor does he try to downplay the impact of colonialism: a fair proportion of the maps and text are devoted to showing how maps were an important political tool in the confiscation and alienation of Maori land and territories by the settler government.

His writing style here shifts between the relatively formal (in the main text) to breezy and colloquial (in the captions), doubtless reflecting the intention that Singing the Trail be accessible both to the dedicated reader and to the browser alike. The story of mapping Aotearoa New Zealand is visually and factually fascinating and will survive any hack’s attempt to do it justice: here, it's been half told tolerably well.

Singing the Trail: The Story of Mapping Aotearoa New Zealand by John McCrystal (Allen & Unwin, $59.99)

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