Magna Carta

National Geographic Atlas of the World

(Available through National Geographic Society only), 304 pp., $18.75

It is a handy volume despite its sprawling twelve by nineteen, thanks to flexible covers and sturdy paper. Maps fill facing pages to their very edges. Open the book at random and chances are nearly even that you will be confronted with more than three square feet of continuous National Geographic map, as if you had taken a scarcely folded one from your file. We who have kept files of National Geographic maps, and have persisted in using them in all their unwieldiness instead of riffling some convenient book of inferior maps, well know the magic of the confrontation: the miracle of lucid clutter, the beauty and gentle decisiveness of color contrasts, the inexhaustible store of intelligence.

Now the two values are reconciled: good maps and convenient book. The three hundred pages include fifty-seven such two-page spreads.

I shall keep the old loose National Geographic maps for trips. And, since the National Geographic omits counties, I shall keep my old inferior book for counties. Grudgingly. It is before me now, a 1948 Hammond of even larger format than the National Geographic Atlas, and it is open at south central South America. The polychrome two-page spread is something between a poster and an imposture. Its detail is sparse and irresponsible. Part of Brazil is elaborately misplaced within Paraguay, and part of Paraguay in Argentina, as a glance at other pages bears out; the name of the Paranà is applied by mistake to the Iguassù, as well as to the Paranà; Aconcagua is omitted, though lesser mountains are marked; and two provinces of Chile are shown in a way that conflicts with another page. The 1954 Hammond is better, but I disagree. The point of my sad example is that such ineptitude is neither to be found nor imagined in National Geographic maps. They have an air somehow of selfevident accuracy, they are visibly as real as earth itself.

The National Geographic Atlas is up to date without recourse to overprinting. Rwanda, Burundi, the C.A.R., the sovereign state of Western Samoa, and other countries of their generation are herewith legitimized. They emerge as real as Denmark and Portugal, as real as ever a National Geographic map can make them. All levels of detail bristle with novelty, seemingly engraved from scratch. Where we so lately saw “Ulan Bator (Urga)” we now see “Ulaan Batar (Ulan Bator).” At points one senses the strain of keeping obsolescence at bay. Thus in the descriptive pages we read of “the formerly Dutch western portion” of New Guinea, and of “this former British colony” of Aden, but find no present status ventured for these places.

Text takes up more than half the book. There are state-by-state and country-by-country entries, each in two parts: a concise schedule of standard specifications and an informal description, often lively (“Grande-Terre…is smaller than BasseTerre…, which is mountainous”) and informative. In these entries a few lands seem to have been overlooked: Malta, Hong Kong, Macao, Timor, the Falklands.

The text includes pieces on astronomy,…

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