Maps and Atlases

October 8, 2014

9780007551408Readers of this blog who are interested in my posts about travel writing won’t be surprised to learn how much I love atlases and maps: visually attractive, often beautiful, they allow me to explore from the comfort of the sofa, and follow the travels of a host of writers. You will understand why I so often complain about the poor quality of maps attached to travel books nowadays – penny-pinching by publishers, or decisions by editors who have no real feel for what they are preparing for publication, and the needs of those who will actually buy and read the book. I can gaze for hours at the curious shapes of continents and countries, the locations of settlements and the countryside that surrounds them; I can appreciate the vastness of the world, in these days when it’s possible to reach remote places very quickly.

I especially like maps from the past: they are like a time capsule or time machine into a world that doesn’t exist any more. John Speed’s seventeenth century maps of Great Britain, for example, show older names for places, how difficult it was to travel from place to place in those days, places that were important then and are now faded into insignificance, and one notices the absence of some places which have grown up in the intervening years and did not exist, or merit a place on a map way back then. Johann Blaeu‘s stunning Atlas Major from the 1660s, now available again, albeit in an abridged version thanks to those wonderful publishers Taschen, allows one to look at the approximations of places when Westerners hadn’t fully explored and mapped everywhere: there are real blank areas on maps, although often filled up with drawings of (sometimes mythical) flora and fauna – nobody likes a blank space – there are places where only the coastline is known or partially known; there are places just not on the maps… And don’t get me started on wonders like the Mappa Mundi, of which I have a very faded reproduction, and its allegorical representation of the world.

For today’s world, I’ve yet to find anything to better the Times Atlas – I’m on my second copy, since the first was rendered rather less useful by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new countries and the renaming of so many places. The scale and level of detail is marvellous, only the size is a limitation: it doesn’t sit easily or comfortably on my lap while I’m reading. When there’s not enough detail in it, I tend to buy a one-off specialist map, so I have huge maps of the Sahara, the Silk Route countries and so on. I once saw, in a secondhand bookshop, a copy of the Soviet-era Atlas Mira (Atlas of the World), and it was huge: it made the Times Atlas look small. I didn’t buy it, but often wish I had. I do have a smaller Atlas of the USSR, which is very useful when reading about travels in Russia, and especially Siberia. I also have a fascinating road atlas of the Soviet Union from the 1980s. This is fascinating partly because of the large areas that don’t figure in it at all – why would they, when there are no road there? – and also because of the roads which travel 400, 500, 600, even 700 km into the depths of the continent and then just stop. There are no side turnings to right or left. So when you’ve got there, the only way out is to do all that journey over again. It boggles my mind.

I have Google Earth on my computer. Occasionally it’s really useful. I can pinpoint the clearing in the forest deep in Belarus where my father’s home village (hamlet, really: only four houses) used to be. But it remains a curiosity, whereas I would be lost (literally) without my collection of maps and atlases.

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