The Map Thief is the Perfect Summer Read
New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island is one of those idyllic locales where you have little or no distraction. So I took advantage of my free time last week to read the latest book by author Michael Blanding, a writer I’ve known for over a decade since his days as editor at Boston Magazine. Blanding’s subject this time is E. Forbes Smiley III, one of the foremost map dealers in the world before he was caught stealing a map from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University in 2005. In a plea bargain, he admitted to stealing close to 100 maps worth more than $3 million from the foremost map collections in the world including the British Library in London, the New York Public Library, and the Boston Public Library.
Working as a travel writer, I certainly have an affinity for maps. I even remember having a New York City subway map on the walls of my college apartment. But map collecting to me is about as exciting as stamp collecting and I thought this was going to be another obligatory read I had to slog through because I knew the author. Man, was I wrong! This is an excellent character study that I’d love to see an actor tackle on the big screen, similar to Shattered Glass, the brilliant film about New Republic plagiarist Stephen Glass. In fact, the book was so compelling it was hard for me to put it down. Yes, Blanding delves into mapmaking and the impact on Colonial exploration, highlighting the gems, the “Honus Wagners” that fetch the most money at auction. But the meat and potatoes of the read is Smiley, an Orson Welles-type character who’s always the life of the party with a huge personality and laugh. The one who turns his college buddies on to great Blues records, fine wine, and entertains their kids at his summer home in Maine.
I opened the book thinking Smiley was another petty thief or con man with a Blue Blood name, not unlike the despicable Clark Rockefeller. But the beauty of this book is that you end up empathizing with Smiley. He has to compete against incredibly cutthroat map dealers, he’s spurned by collectors after assembling their phenomenal collections, even the New York Public Library reneges on its deal to let Smiley sell some of their wares after he persuades a collector to donate his entire collection to them. Then he has to deal with a redneck neighbor in Maine who wants to build a motorboat marina across from his quiet lakefront property. So in the end, he steals maps from libraries that can’t even keep track of them, incompetent at cataloguing what they acquire. Do I think it’s wrong that he stole a map from a book once owned by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury killed by Henry the VIII? Absolutely. Would I like to down a pint with Smiley the next time I’m on Martha’s Vineyard, where he now resides? Absolutely.