Reading an atlas, and I won’t even discuss asking for directions, is one of those activities that can cause division while driving down the highway. If you have ever been appointed navigator for a road trip you know what I mean. Figuring out which way is north or thinking the blue line is a road instead of a river, can easily lead to arguments and recriminations while looking for the correct exit.
I have to admit that I’ve always loved maps and atlases. I think the key to appreciating them is divorcing maps from the everyday function of finding directions. There are many atlases that are beautiful, fascinating and have nothing to do with getting you from point A to point B.
Let’s start with atlases that map places you will almost certainly never go. Unless you have access to a bathysphere, you probably won’t recognize the terrain in Hidden Depths: Atlas of the Oceans. Far from just a collection of ocean maps, this book includes information on currents, climate and the creatures that inhabit all the world’s oceans.
The Compact NASA Atlas of the Solar System lets you explore the cosmic neighborhood. Each planetary system is mapped, incorporating the stunning images from spacecraft missions. A truly spectacular book is the New Atlas of the Moon. Each phase of the moon is mapped in detail. There is also a Lunar Cartography section that has photographs of each feature and how they came to be.
Animals and atlases are an interesting combination. The Atlas of Pacific Salmon brings together a lot of key data about salmon populations. The graphic display of their movements and the human population’s impact on their numbers is eye-opening. Tracking fellow long distance travelers, The Atlas of Bird Migration displays the movements of birds by species. Fascinating information about the how and why of migration is provided as well.
Sometimes the definition of atlas is stretched a bit thin. The World Atlas of Whisky is clearly a labor of love, with displays of major brands and bottles, but to be honest, it is a little low on the maps. If whisky is your thing, however, this book is definitely for you. Where else could you find a flow chart for “Irish pot-still production”?
Finally, for those ready to leave the traditional atlas behind, take a look at Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities. Based on a popular blog, this self-proclaimed “anti-atlas” is a treasure trove of maps that are both real and imagined. Looking for a map of the barbecue regions of South Carolina? You have found your atlas.