The first book I remember buying with my own money was a Rand McNally World Atlas. I must have saved up my allowances, because I think it cost more than my regular 50 cents a week. I bought it in a St. Louis department store, around 1958 or 1959. This was also the first trip to a “big city” that I can recall lucidly; I was 7 or 8 years old. I stayed up late that night, pondering Britain in all its pinkness, the size of Russia, and all the countries big and small that I had never heard of. Dreaming about what all those places might look like. I still cherish that first atlas.
That atlas drove me to want bigger and better atlases, covering more countries in more detail. As I mentioned in a recent post, these atlases are my substitute for reading fantasy fiction: I can look at a map, urban or countryside, and imagine what the town might look like, what the road might look like, what it would feel like to be there.
My atlas collection remains at the core of my way-too-big book collection. I would guess I have maybe 3,000 atlases. I buy new ones and old ones, ones in English and ones in foreign languages, specialty atlases, local atlases, and – maybe my favorites – historical atlases. But nothing takes the place of a good general world atlas.
On my long list of “things I want to post about” is a comparison and review of the best top-of-the-line world atlases available today, which include atlases by the Times of London and by Oxford University Press. In the old days I would have been focused on dominant US atlas maker Rand McNally, but they have cut back on their world atlases (while still publishing the top-selling US road and highway atlas). Their smaller competitor, Hammond, now owned by a German company, still makes fine atlases. And there are many others.
But today I want to focus on two excellent atlases from the National Geographic Society. Unlike some of my friends, I have not always been a National Geographic “worshipper.” Some thought National Geo’s maps and atlases were unexcelled, whereas I never felt that way. Of course it is a great outfit, with strong publishing and broadcasting programs and an excellent museum at their Washington headquarters, but that doesn’t automatically make them the world’s greatest atlas-maker.
However, in the Family Reference Atlas of the World (second edition, 2006) and slightly less expensive and smaller Collegiate Atlas of the World (also 2006), they have produced two excellent volumes which have become my most common quick reference guides to the lay of the land. Before I say more about these two, let me touch on two key ideas: atlas size and “Why not just use Google Maps?”
The most thorough and detailed world atlases are enormous heavy books, larger than about any other book you might have in height, width, and weight. They are inconvenient to read in bed or to flip through quickly. They require a big table. On the other hand, when you want to find that remote village you just heard about on the news, they can’t be beat. They usually cost $100 and up.
Every atlas has its strengths and weaknesses. What I call “real traditional atlases” are almost entirely made up of two parts: similar maps showing the different parts of the world; and a thick, comprehensive index that may list 100,000 places on those maps. Over the years, more modern atlases are likely to also include maps of land use, weather, elevations, economic issues like crops, and even maps of the ocean floors, the moon, and the solar system. The large diversity of atlas content is one of my excuses for owning so many atlases. But, for this review, a key point is that picking the right size atlas for the application is worth doing. The two atlases covered here are not among the giant variety, nor are they among the pocket-sized atlases, both of which I expect to review in the future.
Some may think you can get by with online, GPS, or DVD-based maps and atlases. While those maps have their uses, none can replace a large sheet of paper covered edge to edge with geographic information. Whether you are trying to figure out the lay of the land in Manhattan or the desert of Oman, nothing allows you to understand your context like a large map. The greatest of atlases are in fact just paginated versions of large, folding sheet maps. That is why the very finest of atlases are so huge. The bigger the page, the more context you get. No other method as effectively tells you what the neighboring states or counties or countries are, what your choices for alternative routes might be, what the distances are like, or what mountains or bodies of water you might run into. Nothing shows detail as well as a large map.
My bottom line: every home and every office should have a good, accessible, up-to-date world atlas nearby at all times. It is just as important to a good reference collection as the almanac, thesaurus, and dictionary. That leads me back to these two books.
The Family Reference Atlas is my favorite for most uses. Not only does it have reasonably detailed maps of every nation on earth, it also contains outstanding economic, political, and social maps that help us understand the world around us. These specialized maps cover every continent in a like manner, making comparisons easy. It even contains a beautiful map of the geography of the Internet, as well as great maps of the oceans and space. The atlas contains a list of the world’s largest cities that uses the right metropolitan area data (rather than misleading city limits data like some atlases) and a world weather table. The features and information content list goes on and on. Like any good atlas, it has a great index. Given its amazingly reasonable price, this would be my first pick for a gift to anyone of any age.
If you want a slight smaller book – more like the size of a typical textbook – or a slightly lower price, the Collegiate has some of the same features in a handier format. This one comes about as close to “reading in bed” size as you can get in a “real” atlas. It does not have nearly as much map detail or as much supplemental information as the Family Reference Atlas, but it’s still a great one. I keep it beside my bed.
In either case, for yourself, for students, or for anyone else you know who wants to understand world in which you live, these books are great reference books and excellent value for money.