Saturday, June 1, 2013

Atlas of World History. Patrick O'Brien, editor.


An atlas of world history is an unnecessary expense. You can find just about any kind of map you want on the internet. That said, the Oxford University Press Atlas of World History is a lot of fun for those interested in history or geography. If you are a visual learner, and that encompasses most of us, this offering contains “450 full color maps” according to the back of the atlas. (I swear the Oxford University Press is not paying me for this article.) Since my monkey brain likes shiny things, I enjoy pouring over the maps as an accompaniment to whatever history text I happen to be reading.

While the main attraction is the maps themselves, the articles which accompany each map are instructive encapsulations of the historical periods or issues being illustrated. This is useful both to supplement what you are studying, and to provide a sometimes contrasting view with your reading. The perspectives presented in the articles and associated maps show some uncommon erudition. There are articles and maps pertaining to South America’s Moche Culture in 375 BC, Ancient Greece’s Level of Vegetation, 9th Century Frankish Economy and Transport Routes in Tokugawa Era Japan. Such topics are a bit obscure and a little more difficult to find on the internet.

The arrangement of the atlas is about as user-friendly as you can get. It’s entirely chronological and divided into easily recognizable sections (Ancient World, Medieval World, Early Modern World, etc.) If these categories are not helpful enough to search out a subject, the atlas is finely indexed with over 8000 entries. There is a slight bias towards European and North American topics. The editor did make an effort to represent the histories of Asia, Africa and North America, so this atlas does a better job than most Western publications. But if you were expecting a politically progressive history of the world, this is not the press to explore.

While the Atlas of World History is a luxury, it is not a very expensive one. Don’t go to the Oxford University Press site on the internet, they charge $49.95 for this book. Several other sites can get you new copies of the atlas for between $24.00 and $32.00. Obviously, used copies and previous editions are less money, and it is unlikely that the historical information on say Medieval Europe has changed in the last few years.

The Atlas of World History is an instructive resource for the Geography or History buff. I acquired mine by suggesting it to my wife on a birthday wish list. (Aren’t I a wild man?) It is enjoyable to have it by my side as a visual adjunct to my latest history book, but I also peruse it independent of other texts as a good read on its own.


O’Brien, Patrick, ed. Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.