Arts book review

Maps of the world, in print

Oxford’s latest Atlas of the World is an outstanding, up-to-date reference book

Oxford Atlas of the World, 19ed

Oxford University Press

October 2012

There are several reasons why it is handy, at least for me, to have an atlas. First, as part of my work at MIT I get to interact with people from all over the world, and I like to see on a map the exact place they call home. Second, as part of my role as father of a very curious four-year-old girl, I get to answer many questions about places I visit (“Where is Germany?”), places where her favorite animals live (“Where are the lions?”) and places where we have loved ones (“Where is abuelita’s house?”). Finally, sometimes I just need to know where a place is, either because something is happening there (e.g., South Sudan) or because I heard about it and realized I had no clue where it is.

If this resonates with you, then you may want to take a look at the Oxford Atlas of the World, specifically the 19th edition, fresh from the press. The volume opens with a list of the most populous cities on the planet and a thoroughly illustrated essay on food scarcity, one of the most pressing issues facing humanity today. Then comes a series of full-page satellite pictures of seventeen cities, including all-time favorites (Rome and London) as well as some topical choices (Kabul and Juba). A collection of concise profiles for each and every country on the planet, along with their flags and key statistics, is followed by a primer to geography, covering subjects such as global trade and climate change, and a selection of maps for 70 urban areas, many with a closer look. Boston, for example, gets both a map for the Greater Boston area and one for Downtown Boston.

At the heart of the Atlas are almost two hundred pages of maps, physical and political, of the world and each continent, and regional maps covering all the countries, accompanied by a hundred-plus page long index of cities (Cambridge is on page 355), places (MIT is on page 399), and geographical features with the coordinates and map reference for each one of the 85,000 entries. Being from Panama, and having grown up learning that Panama is the “heart of the universe” (yes... I know), I used my knowledge of my home country to test the accuracy of the information in the Atlas. I am happy to report that they seem to have gotten it all right, with a single exception: the time zone map (p. 73) inexplicably puts Panama in the wrong time zone, UTC –6, instead of the correct UTC –5.

This error made me aware of the downsides inherent to this — and any other — printed reference, namely that printed material cannot be updated in the way that digital online content can. Here’s the thing: Oxford Press revises their Atlas of the World annually, so that each new edition reflects any geopolitical changes from the previous twelve months. The 18th edition, released in November 2011, includes the country of South Sudan, which became independent four months before; the 19th edition, released in October 2012, includes the changes in the time zones of Samoa and Kiribati, which took place only 10 months before. Even so, once you buy a printed atlas, the clock is ticking.

Which brings us to the question: Should you invest in a printed atlas, such as Oxford’s, or should you rely on digital resources such as Wikipedia and Google Maps? On the one hand, Wikipedia and Google get Panama’s time zone right, and Google Maps allows you to zoom in to see smaller cities that are not listed in a regular atlas, such as my hometown, La Villa de Los Santos. On the other hand, for book lovers like myself, there is no substitute for a substantial, beautifully illustrated Atlas that I can open on my desk with a friend or on the living room floor with my daughter. Call me a romantic, but I like feeling the paper, smelling the ink, and turning the pages.