Atlas of World History

Pros: Such a great reference!
Cons: Mostly serves as a starting point; index isn’t wonderful
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 7/5/2001

I shamefacedly admit it: history is just not my strong point. I think I’ve hated it ever since that high school history teacher (who was also the vice-principal) who said breezily that the dinosaurs lived 10 billion years ago. I only barely kept myself from asking him what they were doing for the 5 billion years before the earth formed – flying around in little spaceships?

Or maybe it was just that in high school, history was nothing more than the memorization of dates and names, with one-line descriptors of what was important about those dates and names. And I suck at memorization. Really, really suck. (Did I mention I have attention deficit disorder?) My husband, who had much better history teachers, tells me that history can be fun. And I believe him, really I do. It’s just that I’m already averse to it, so I don’t want to have to learn it now.

I write for a living, however. And a writer who isn’t familiar with history is going to have problems. History crops up in the weirdest places. For instance, I do a lot of writing for roleplaying game companies. I already have a shelf full of history books I’ve bought as resources for my RPG writing. I’ve had to write about the last 700 (or was it 600?) years of history of a particular clan of vampires. And little historical details creep into other projects too. One editor might someday tell me that he wants a particular culture to resemble the British Empire on its way out – oops, gotta find a book on that!

There’s no substitute, in all of this, for a good, basic book that covers the simplest facts. A travel guide, if you will, that can at least give you a better idea of what you’re looking for.

Next Stop, Decline of the British Empire

Okay, so I need a few details to give me an idea of what that editor wants with the end of the British Empire. I pull out my trusty Atlas of World History and look for British Empire in the index. There it is! Maps 60, 67, 75, 97, 101. Of course there are a lot of cross-references to other maps as well. I’m not ready to tackle all that so I’ll start with the basic pages.

Map 60 turns out to be “The World: AD 1530.” It has a map of the world with various color codings for things such as “hunter-gatherers,” “simple farming societies,” and “state societies.” There are arrows denoting the English route of exploration, the Spanish route of exploration, and more. I can see where the Siberian reindeer herders lived, and the Arctic marine mammal hunters, as well as the Khoisan herders in southern Africa. There’s a timeline stretching from Columbus’ trip to Hispaniola and Cuba in 1492 to the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1531. The timeline is color-coded so that we can easily separate out items related to the Americas, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and East and South Asia. There’s probably a good page’s worth of text touching on some of the major trends of the time period. Unfortunately there really isn’t much of anything here about the British Empire, nicely highlighting one of my problems with this book: the index isn’t entirely helpful.

Let’s move onto the other maps under that heading, however. Map 67 turns out to be “The World: AD 1650.” More color-coding, this time marking out some of the empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Safavid Empire. The “English empire” is color-coded in a bright blue. The timeline stretches from 1600 (the English East India company established) to 1649 (Parliament in England executes Charles I and creates a republic). Okay, now this is more interesting. The text contains information about a downturn in material conditions in Europe, widespread famine and warfare, exploration coming to a halt. All right, so there are some traces of what I’m looking for here. Let’s move on again.

Map 75, “The American Revolution: 1763-1783,” isn’t quite what I’m looking for either, but it has a terrific breakdown of victories on all sides, campaign movements, and so on. Map 97 turns out to be “The World: AD 1914.” Aha! “The British empire reached the height of its power…” now this is much better! There are plenty of dates, rough trends, and major landmark events to give me something to look up in the library, and a rough idea of how to structure what I’m doing. Excellent! Just to be thorough I’ll check out that last map. 101 is “Europe between the wars: 1918-1939.” Not really what I was looking for.

Last Stop: Ancient World, Classical World, Table of Contents…

Try to stick to the table of contents. It’s broken up into:

  • Part 1: The Ancient World (4,000,000-500 BC)
  • Part 2: The Classical World (500 BC- AD 600)
  • Part 3: The Medieval World (AD 600-1492)
  • Part 4: The Early Modern World (1492-1783)
  • Part 5: The Nineteenth-Century World (1783-1914)
  • Part 6: The Modern World (1914-Present)

Part 1, for example, is broken up into 19 maps, all named in the table of contents:

  • 1 Human origins: 4,000,000-100,000 years ago
  • 2 Peopling the Earth: 100,000-10,000 years ago
  • 3 Upper Paleolithic Europe: 35,000 years ago-5000 BC

and so on.

In short, this book is good for a handful of things. One, it’s great for us writers who need to be able to get a quick idea of the dates and broad details of things, either as fact-checking or as a starting point for locating further research materials. Two, it’s great for older kids. It will help them in all the same ways, and it has lots of colorful maps and timelines to make things easy and a little interesting. (I say older kids because it isn’t specifically aimed at children, so they’ll have to feel comfortable with “older” reading material before tackling this.) Three, it’s a big, colorful coffee table book for those who like such things.

The only problem is that the overly large index is only moderately useful. I find this to be vaguely annoying, but not overly troublesome. This isn’t a book I use for in-depth research, but it is usually the first book I look in when getting started.

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