The 10 Best World Atlases
How to Choose the Best World Atlas for You
Before choosing a world atlas, it's important to know ahead of time where your interests mainly lie.
Are you more concerned with where things are? Or are you more interested in statistics--in the climatic, economic, religious, and social differences between countries?
Or perhaps you need a world atlas that teaches you how to make maps, or one that fascinates your 10-year-old with beautiful pictures of Mount Fuji and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Some world atlases focus heavily on political maps--maps that show borders, the locations of cities, major highways, and bodies of water. Some are littered with info-graphics about air pollution with bright colors highlighting places like Beijing and New Delhi. Others are designed to help kids learn to read with easy-to-understand charts about literacy rates.
Some even have an agenda, reminding you at every possible turn of the page of the ongoing effects of climate change, regardless of whether or not you support the idea.
Although no two world atlases are the same, they do share a common trait: they aren't exactly cheap. So before dropping upwards of $100 on a weighty tome that might not have all the information you are looking for, or might prove inaccessible to younger family members, don't forget to take a closer look at which is which.
Why is Greenland so Big and Africa so Small?
Many of you may recognize this map as the one that adorned your classroom wall in grade school. Behold, the Mercator projection--the most well-known yet least accurate world map of them all in terms of scale!
But what do you mean, least accurate in terms of scale?
Allow me to explain.
The world is a ball, not a sphere, but a kind of acne-riddled kickball that caught cooties at an early age. It's covered in scars we call canyons and bumps we call mountains. Now take one of those mountains, take one lone zit, and stretch it out until it's as big around as your entire face. Fortunately for us, that's not how the world actually works.
But that's what Mercator did. He took the North and South Poles, the smallest circles on the globe, and stretched them out until they were as fat around as the equator.
So now when we look at a map we think Greenland, which is near the North Pole, is almost as big as Africa, which is on and around the equator, even though Africa is almost ten times larger than Greenland.
Again, "the map is not the territory."
From Titan to King to Collection
Originally compiled by Italian cartographer Pietro Coppo between 1524 and 1526, the first known collection of equal-sized maps depicting regions of the world remained unpublished despite Coppo's efforts. It was not until 1570 when Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish cartographer, compiled his own collection of maps and successfully published them as Theatrum Orbis Terrarum ("Theater of the World"), thus earning Ortelius the title of creator of the first modern atlas.
However, the term "atlas" itself did not enter the modern geographer's lexicon until 1595 when Ortelius' Flemish contemporary, Gerardus Mercator (whose famous Mercator projection can be found in classrooms worldwide), published his own collection of maps in direct competition with Ortelius' Theatrum. He used an image of a globe-holding King Atlas of Mauretania as the frontispiece and named the collection Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura ("Atlas, or Cosmographical Meditations upon the Creation of the Universe, and the Universe as Created").
According to etymologists, Mercator was the first cartographer to use the name "Atlas" in direct reference to the globe itself, as opposed to the character holding it. Not only that, but he emphasized as much in his choice of frontispiece.
Rather than use the classical image of Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, Mercator instead used a commissioned image of King Atlas, a known astronomer, holding a globe in his hands like a book--as if to imply that King Atlas is reading the "atlas" that Mercator compiled. After all, if a Greek mythological Titan can carry the world on its shoulders, then why can't a collection of maps do the same? For Mercator, the collection is the Titan.
And to top it all off, due to the unwieldy length of the collection's original title, readers of the English translation of 1636 dubbed the book simply Atlas, thereby completing the transition from "Atlas," the Greek mythological Titan, to "atlas", a collection of maps.