Book Review: National Geographic Society Atlas Of World History

National Geographic Society Atlas Of World History, by Noel Grove

I hope for the sake of the reputation of the author of this book that Noel Grove was not his actual name but was rather a pseudonym chosen to hide his true identity as part of the federal witness protection program.  This book is an embarrassment, perhaps the worst atlas I have ever read [1].  In reading this atrocity of a book, I was flabbergasted by exactly how an august institution like the National Geographic would attach their name to a book with large amounts of typos and basic contradictions between one part of a page and another, such as the statement that Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) was jailed after a serious illness by his victorious and brutal son Aurangzeb but lived for another six years, while another date showed his death at the time of imprisonment (197,199).  When in the same article there is no attempt to keep one’s facts straight, keeping them straight over the course of a nearly 400 page world history book poorly disguised as an atlas is a hopeless task, made more hopeless by the muddled nature of the text and its near total lack of continuity and flow.  Before one can teach the course of world history, one has to know it, and if this book represents the standards of historical geography for our nation, it is little wonder our nation’s children have little clue about the subject, as few people can be expected to be wiser than their instructors.

This book is a mess.  Even figuring out its genre is a bit of a challenge.  The book itself purports to be at atlas, but it contains far more superficial text lacking in citations as well as art and photography than it does maps, and many of the comparatively few maps the book does contain are themselves artwork rather than maps.  The end result is a book that feels more like a world history book for children than it does like a historical atlas.  The contents of the book are divided chronologically into six chapters dealing with the following eras of world history:  the ancient world (to 500BC), the classical age (500BC to 500AD), the Middle Ages (500 to 1400 AD), the age of discovery (1400 to 1700 AD), the industrial revolution (1700AD to 1900AD), and the 20th century.  Each page has a timeline on the top that gives some very basic chronological points, and then the content of the pages jumps back and forth with no rhyme or reason, totally failing to connect with the larger context of history, and sometimes there are even random sidebars that totally fail to connect with the main content of the essays themselves.  If anyone gets historical insight out of this book, it will be almost entirely by accident.

How is one to properly judge such a shambolic effort as this one?  To put it bluntly, this book is a mess.  It happens to be a hot mess, with gorgeous works of art and artistic maps of historical value, but it is a book that could have been written better and more knowledgeably about both history and geography by most of the young people I happen to know.  I would have been embarrassed to write this book, not least because the images it provides are of such dubious effort in conveying data and information.  As a student of the information design works of Tufte, I have seen much of what good data looks like, and this book fails miserably.  Nearly every map included here has barely any information content whatsoever, and often what is on the maps is contradicted or entirely unexplained by unhelpful supporting text.  The result is an embarrassing exposure of someone who has no business creating atlases or writing world history works for any audience whatsoever.  Who thought that they could pass this off as a substantial or serious work of historical geography?  I sure hope no tax dollars were wasted on this pathetic effort.  If so, I want my money back.

[1] I am a man who likes to read atlases.  See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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