How exactly do you review an atlas?
The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World (HarperCollins) is the flagship of the Times World Atlas line. (The others, in descending order of size and price, are the Concise, the Universal, the Reference, the Desktop and the Mini.)1 It’s the latest in a long line of Times atlases, tracing its heritage to the original 1895 atlas published by the Times and the 1922 Times Survey Atlas of the World produced by the venerable Scottish mapmaking firm, John Bartholomew and Son. Like its predecessors, it’s absolutely gargantuan: with the slipcase, it’s 47 × 32.5 cm (16.5 × 12.8 inches) in size and weighs 5.7 kg (12.6 lb). Only the National Geographic Atlas of the World is a little bit larger, and even it weighs less than the Comprehensive (4.5 kg or 9.9 lb).2
The 15th edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas came out on 6 September 2018 (and on 15 November 2018 in North America). HarperCollins has sent me a review copy, and I’ve been trying to come up with something to say about it.
What can you say, after all, about a big world atlas? It’s a world atlas: it does world atlas things. It has maps of different regions of the world at various scales, plus some informational maps and infographics at the start of the book. It’s awfully big, and needs to be laid flat on a table in order to consult it properly. It’s kind of an anachronism. All of which are true of most world atlases; where they differ is in the details: the physical size of the book, the number of map plates, the scale, the cartographic choices.
On those terms I could compare it to previous editions, which is something I did when I reviewed the ninth edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World because I also owned a copy of the eighth. Except in this case I haven’t seen a previous edition: I didn’t own any of the Times atlases before this one turned up. Nor, at £150 a copy, is the Comprehensive something I’d rush out to purchase every time a new edition comes out. (How many of us, having bought a world atlas, replace it at some point? Or buy another, for that matter? Is the first atlas you buy also the last?)
I could also compare it to the competition, except that it’s hard to say what that competition is. The Oxford Atlas of the World is more directly comparable to the smaller Times Concise in terms of physical size and page count. The National Geographic Atlas of the World (the tenth edition of which came out in 2014) is roughly equivalent in terms of size and number of map plates, but it diverges from the world atlas coloured relief map paradigm: it’s the National Geographic map division’s distinctive map style, familiar from a hundred folded maps included in the magazine, applied to a book-shaped object.
Treating a world atlas as a reviewable object on its own terms is going to be a challenge. Let me start by talking about the damn bookmark.
That Damn Bookmark Is Amazing
The 15th edition of the Times Comprehensive doesn’t come with a ribbon marker. (I don’t know if earlier editions did.) What it does come with is this bookmark, which at 42 × 14 cm matches the size of the atlas. It’s absolutely brilliant, because of what it has on the back: a legend. All the map symbols, all the typefaces and font sizes, all the lines and squiggles, explained in one spot.
It’s not like the competition doesn’t do this: both my editions of the Oxford (the 14th) and the National Geographic (the ninth) put this information on the endpapers. But putting it there means having to flip to the front or end of the book to look up a symbol. When you’re dealing with something the size of a world atlas, that’s awfully unwieldy, even with the smaller Oxford.
Probably because it can be consulted more easily (and more often), the legend on the Times Comprehensive’s bookmark is much more detailed. There are different type sizes and symbols for cities depending on their population. Unlike other atlases, these are defined. A city of between one and five million people will appear exactly the same on every map in this atlas (national and administrative capitals are also distinguished by a coloured symbol; national capitals are also in all caps), regardless of where you are on the map. The bookmark is a pledge of consistency.
(The symbols can be fairly hard to tell apart once they’re surrounded by the very busy maps, especially for someone with presbyopic eyes like myself. They’re all circles or squares with dots in them: more differentiation in shapes would be helpful.)
This brings up another point, about the difference between paper and online maps. The recent trend in online maps is to provide information based on context: labels appear and disappear based on your zoom level and your search terms. If you’re browsing—simply poking around the map, not looking for anything in particular—these design choices result in a hot mess. You might be staring at a large metropolitan area and see names of suburbs rather than the name of the conurbation as a whole: no New York or Philadelphia. (Speaking from experience, there.) There’s something to be said, in other words, for consistency, for making editorial choices and sticking with them—even if sticking with them is basically the result of it being on paper more than anything else.
Any atlas will emphasize certain regions at the expense of others: it’s a function of the readership its publisher is trying to sell to. As an atlas published in the United Kingdom, in English, the Times Comprehensive does about as you’d expect. Of 132 map plates, 40 are of Europe, comprising 30 percent of the total. Asia is next with 31 plates, or 23.5 percent, followed by North America at 23 plates or 17.4 percent. South America gets only eight plates (six percent), less than the Oceania section (11 plates, 8.3 percent), which makes up Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
Most regional maps run between 1:2,500,000 and 1:5,500,000, depending on the continent; almost all the large-scale maps (1:1,000,000 to 1:1,500,000), with few exceptions, are in Europe. So it’s a bit eurocentric, yes, though the foreword takes pains to emphasize the atlas’s edition-by-edition trend away from eurocentricity.
That’s not to say that the atlas is lacking in detail outside those large-scale maps. Far from it. As a test, I looked for North Sentinel Island, Komodo National Park, and Hans Island: all were present and labelled. (All were also present in the National Geographic; the Oxford had Komodo Island but not the park, and had the best look at North Sentinel Island, in an inset map of the Andaman and Nicobar islands.)
Closer to home (literally!), my own village of Shawville, Quebec does not appear in any of the atlases (though smaller communities nearby do: clearly a conspiracy is afoot).
The Times Comprehensive manages cartographic controversies with a bit more subtlety than the National Geographic, which prints explanations in red ink. Disputes involving Crimea, Guyana and Kashmir are noted in black sans-serif text that is easy to miss; Transdnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not stand out; Gaza, the West Bank, Somaliland and Western Sahara get the font for disputed territories.
Disputed bodies of water are labelled with a bit of finesse: Sea of Japan (East Sea) and The Gulf (neatly sidestepping whether it’s Arabian or Persian). Parentheses also indicate new, alternative, non-English or deprecated names, e.g. Czechia (Czech Republic), East Timor (Timor-Leste), Swaziland (Eswatini).
Disputed boundaries and ceasefire lines are dotted in several different and specific ways. The Nine-Dash Line is absent; territorial claims are noted on a text label. It’s less informative than the National Geographic (which privileges the political more than any other atlas), but it’s less likely to render the map out of date later on.
Should You Get It?
Which I suspect is the point. It’s fair to say that a world atlas—especially a great big one with a list price of £150 or $200 ($275 in Canada) is meant to be kept for a while. Nobody buying the 15th edition of an atlas has a copy of the 14th lying around: the changes listed in the foreword signal that the atlas is up-to-date and therefore authoritative, not that it’s time to get rid of the old one.
It’s a reference tool, but not in the same way it was before online maps and reference tools were a thing. This is not something to look things up on. A big paper atlas is about browsing and it’s about context: big printed maps allow the eye to wander, to see connections. To stumble across places you weren’t looking for.
It’s useful, but not strictly speaking necessary.
Nor by any means is it for everyone, and not just because of the price. An atlas of this size is probably aimed at libraries and institutions rather than individuals. (Libraries should absolutely get this atlas, as well as several others, if they have the budget for it. That bookmark will disappear fast, though.) For individuals the sheer size of the thing is going to be a problem. As I wrote in my 2010 review of the National Geographic Atlas, “Trying to open up this atlas in your lap, or in your hands standing up, is just asking for it. (And if you think wrangling one atlas is fun, try wrangling two of them at once for the purposes of a review.)” That hasn’t changed. It’s hardly the Klencke Atlas, but you do need a large, clean table to consult this thing. It’s not something you pull casually from the shelf. Again: 12.6 pounds.
But I suspect that the people who would be undaunted and undeterred by such considerations will be found among this website’s readers. You don’t get something like this because you need it; you get it because you want it. A reference tool can also be an object of desire.
The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, 15th edition
HarperCollins, September 2018
Amazon (Canada, UK) | Bookshop
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