Monday, April 07, 2008

Atlas Hugged

I’ve always found something about atlases slightly depressing. I think it’s the way they reduce the entire world to something you can manage, catalog and scientifically measure. It’s kind of a letdown to see someplace as grand and exotic-sounding as “Urumqi”, “Hammerfest” or “New Canaan” pinned down as a boring little dot at exact coordinates. I would rather see maps with blank spaces on them, or maps of imaginary places.

Historical timelines, another popular visual aid, aren’t that great either. They usually end up being just lists of kings’ names, or else they’re sprinkled with entries like “1704 - Descartes publishes De Flatulentia” which always leave you wondering how they chose what to put in and what to leave out.

I just got a terrific book, however, that more or less fuses the concepts of map and timeline, resulting in a simmering stew of utter freaking awesomeness. That book is called, quite misleadingly, “The New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History”, by my new hero, the late Colin McEvedy. The title is misleading for two reasons:

1) The atlas is clearly not really that new. The book’s maps are pretty low-tech, monochromatic affairs, something like what you’d expect to see in a middle school history textbook from the 1950s. Also, the author’s views are a bit Eurocentric and refreshingly old-fashioned.

For example, he seems strangely reluctant to admit that the Chinese invented anything. I’m not sure I agree with McEvedy’s claims that the Chinese stole the ideas of writing, the Iron Age, horse riding and the chariot from wandering Middle Easterners. Just reading those claims was like a breath of fresh air, however, since for the past several years we’ve all been beaten over the head with theories that the Chinese discovered not just the stuff they really did discover, but everything else in the entire world too, from soccer to America to chess.

2) The book’s title is also misleading because it’s not really an atlas. It’s more like a timeline sliced up and superimposed on a series of identical maps. Which, as I mentioned above, is awesome. Since the underlying physical map stays the same throughout the book, the focus is on what’s changed since the last map, so the reader doesn’t have the problem which often crops up with zoomed-in historical maps (at least for me) of trying to make sense of the historical information presented on the map while also trying to figure out where the heck the action is in relation to everything else in the world.

So this book doesn’t specify, for example, where every town in ancient Greece was - again, it’s not really an atlas - but it does have dozens of nice maps that show the general movements of the people who settled Greece, the major battles they fought against Persia, etc. Since so much of history is a series of confusing back-and-forth movements where the same countries can mutate and swell and vanish over and over again, reading something which is almost a visual flip book of those mutations is really neat (by the way, the maps here are not actually from the book I have, but from the next one in the series, medieval history, but that’s all I found online).

I’ve seen this book lying around before, but because of the misleading title and cheap-looking (at first glance) maps, I never gave it a chance. Man, I didn’t know what I was missing.

Because - and here’s the strangest thing about this supposed atlas - the writing is very good, and frequently hilarious. The author has the rare skill of being boldly judgmental where people usually bend over backwards to project a facade of objectivity. In the little essays which accompany each map, McEvedy speaks in a deft, iconoclastic voice which advertises that he alone is both intelligent enough to have absorbed the mountains of historical sources and current research and clever enough to cut through all the nonsense with a simple, clear pronouncement. This could seem obnoxious or unprofessional, if his writing weren’t so winning.

Here’s one of my favorite examples so far of McEvedy’s writing, where he gets snippy about the population of ancient Rome:

This brings us to the second blind spot in current thinking. Classical scholars are absolutely wedded to the idea that ancient Rome had a population of a million or more. Historical demographers have told them that this cannot be so, it flies in the face of what the Romans themselves said, and, given what we know of the size of cities in the ancient world, it makes no sense at all, but the academic consensus remains rock solid. It is almost as though admitting to a lower figure would somehow diminish the standing of classical studies. This is not sensible and we will have none of it: the atlas uses a ballpark figure of 250,000.

This sort of thing puts a big smile on my face, and in spite of the density of the maps and the tiny, tiny text I read the atlas cover to cover in one day. I plan to get the other books in the series on different time periods as soon as I can, but unfortunately I think the book I just finished was the one which had been revised most recently, with the others being decades old. I don’t really care, though.

The great writing and refreshing concept of superimposing different information on the same map throughout the book may have just pushed this book into the lofty category occupied by my previous favorite book which graphically represents history, A Street through Time. This is not a compliment I bestow lightly. A Street through Time is a very special book indeed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some two billion people in the world are without access to affordable, reliable light after the sun sets. video gamesThis want of light diminishes their quality of life and security. One man’s invention is beginning to illuminate Africa, and is on its way to lighting many other poor corners of the world. Its affordability and demonstrated utility make this invention a natural candidate for international acclaim. As it enables people to lead more productive lives, it is also in line for ergonomics recognition.
The maker, Sunnite Solar Enterprises LLC, Nintendo DSpoints out in its product promotion that access to inexpensive lighting also provides an economic and social multiplier effect, lifting societies far in excess of simple illumination and creating opportunity without creating dependency. A new RC helicopter has recently appeared on the market, claiming to be the world’s fastest. Designed by world class RC helicopters pilot Curtis Youngblood and Next D Designs, it appears very impressive.