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Culture Books


Books: The lay of the land

Good maps are mental charts to history

A student of history is woefully crippled," Thomas Carlyle argued, "if an excellent set of maps is not readily at hand" Indeed, I have found that a good understanding of the world-past, present, and even future-is greatly enhanced by a good atlas. Whenever I undertake a study of any subject, I make certain to have any and all appropriate maps at my side as I do. As a result, over the years I have accumulated a hefty shelf of historical atlases, map packs, and geographical almanacs. Nevertheless, it is to four resources in particular that I find myself returning again and again.

The Anchor Atlas of World History is an invaluable two-volume paperback set originally produced for a German publisher by a renowned cartographer and an eminent historian. Herman Kinder and Werner Hilgemann produced a kind of graphic encyclopedia of every major civilization, cultural shift, spiritual movement, political innovation, and demographic alteration. There are clearly designed maps detailing wars, conquests, explorations, and migrations, and well-written notes providing names, dates, locales, trends, and connections. The first volume covers the period from the Stone Age to the eve of the French Revolution while the second volume covers the period of the Enlightenment to the waning days of the 20th century.

The Crusades were a defining characteristic in the development of Western Civilization. Jonathan Riley-Smith's brilliantly executed Atlas of the Crusades helps to put that much-misunderstood epoch into better perspective than almost any other single book on the subject. But perhaps more importantly, it throws a searchlight of understanding on the entire tangled subject of the conflict in the Middle East. The maps are amazingly insightful and perceptible. The commentary is clear and factual. Every time there is another crisis in that crisis-ridden region of the world, I find this to be an unrivaled resource.

Though I have never found much to appreciate about the NIV translation of the Bible, I have long been a user of the various tools that accompanied its publication. The NIV Atlas of the Bible for instance, is a helpful resource for serious Bible students, pastors, Sunday school teachers, and homeschoolers. Carl Rasmussen, dean of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem for seven years, has done a stellar job in combining the very best in conservative biblical scholarship and the very latest in archeological and cartographic research. The maps are uncluttered but full of pertinent information and detail. Beautifully supplemented with photographs and illustrations, this is a volume always to keep alongside the Scriptures.

Finally, The Economist World Atlas and Almanac is the finest single-volume modern atlas I have found anywhere. Want to keep track of new nation states in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa? Looking to compare the populations of Zambia and Latvia? Need to know the capital of Vanuta, the mean temperature in Sao Tome, the average rainfall in Melanesia, or the chief export of Andorra? You'll find it all here. Editor Stephen Brough has harnessed The Economist's worldwide network of astute journalists, academics, and designers to produce a rich resource.

It is amazing how much a few well-conceived maps can help us to understand the conundrums of our all too complex world-but besides all that, they're also downright fun.