Review of Atlas of the World
by Joan Baum, Ph.D.
Atlas of the World
Oxford University Press,
560 pp., $150 hardcover
It’s handsome, heavy and, to infer from continuing National Assessment of Educational Progress reports, indispensable. Recent NAEP test results reflect a woeful lack of knowledge about geography on the part of American school children, despite some modest gains in the 4th and 8th grade. As for college freshmen, data show that high school seniors are graduated so ignorant of places abroad, not to mention their own country, that many cannot easily pick out Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan on a world map. The irony is that with so much geographical information available by way of the Internet, videos, travel books and magazines, and movie and TV dramas situated in or simulating foreign locales, neither schools nor parents seem able to exploit such resources to educational advantage, despite growing concerns about America’s preparedness for globalization. Once upon a time roll-down maps were central in every public school classroom, and memorization of capitols, cities, states, countries, rivers, oceans, and countries’ major exports was an essential part of curricula, no matter how dull and dreary the pedagogy. Indeed, once upon a time—before the days of Social Studies, Civics, and Cultural Studies—Geography stood as a subject on its own.
No one need plead for the good old days, however, which were typically more boring than good, but, as many academics have observed, the desire to be contemporary and politically correct has sometimes meant concentrating on one immigrant culture, with the unfortunate effect of sidelining basic facts about others. Of course, in the history of mapmaking there have always been biases: Eurocentric discovery charts that divided the world into territories known (Europe dominated) and unknown (where monsters were said to lie: hic sunt dracones), and American maps for years always put the United States front and center. The new, Deluxe Edition of the Atlas of the World from Oxford more than meets the challenge to be timely, fair and PC. Its first of many large world maps is certainly archeologically correct by centering Africa, and place names are given in native language as well as in conventional English. The editors do follow tradition, however, in introducing the continents Europe first, and then moving through areas north to south.
Clearly, though, what distinguishes the deluxe Oxford Atlas of the World is immediately apparent: stunning illustrations, from dazzling color satellite photos of the earth to fascinating, detailed city grids. While emphasizing areas of densest population and growing political and economic influence, the new and deluxe Oxford Atlas admirably addresses important themes that alter geography and topology—showing, for instance, by way of highly readable comparative statistics the effects of global warming and the human and economic costs of war and natural catastrophes (military budgets, numbers of refugees). The editors have also not shied away from controversy such as noting the “mixed” success of the U.N. in meeting world needs, and including maps of disputed areas, regardless of historical and legal claims.
In less competent hands such a mass of material could be intimidating, but the editors present facts intelligently and beautifully. The Oxford Atlas of the World, Deluxe Edition is clearly a wonderful book to get lost in. Know which airport is the busiest in the world? [Atlanta] As much encyclopedia as atlas, providing, for example, brief explanations (not always totally comprehensible on a first reading) about latitude, longitude and methods of projecting curved space onto a flat page, the Oxford Atlas, deluxe edition, integrates an extraordinary amount of information that might otherwise require other reference works or awkward googling.#