Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: Around the World

Around the World: The Atlas for Today edited by Andrew Losowsky, Sven Ehmann, and Robert Klanten
Gestalten, 2013
Hardcover, 272 pages

One thing I lament with the digital information shift is the loss of reference books, such as encyclopedias, visual dictionaries, or the kind that focus on one particular subject, be it birds, home repair, or even megaliths in Europe. While searching for knowledge via Google has not completely replaced browsing through books, it is changing the way we absorb information in sometimes negative ways. I'd argue that the knowledge gained via Google, while it may lead to certain discoveries, is not as wondrous as looking through books, which can help retain the knowledge gained. So I'm pleased to see this collection of illustrated knowledge (ironically much of it culled from Internet sources) that presents us with the status of our world and some (often dire) glimpses into the future.

The atlas-sized Around the World is made up of approximately 125 two-page spreads in 8 chapters—The Place We Call Home, Living Together, The Days the Earth Stood Still, The Good Life, Fear and Loathing, Money Makes the World Go Round, The World Is Not Enough, and Our Greatest Ideas—each telling a story about the world. The examples here show how the polar caps are heating up and melting, how subterranean Paris evolved over time, what the dangers to global biodiversity are, and how the precious resource of water relates (or doesn't) to national boundaries.

Given the variety of sources (National Geographic, In Graphics, South China Morning Post, and Good Magazine are a few of the more frequent ones) the quality of illustrations is varied, tied together by the editorial selection and writing that prefaces each chapter and each spread. Most of the spreads would make Edward Tufte proud (one of my favorite diagrams shows the sinking of the Titanic as a timeline that also shows the depth of the wreckage; and the September 11, 2001, pages are amazing), but some of them make the message get lost in the medium (my least favorite spread charts the casualties of 20th- and 21st-century wars as a kitchen table with containers filled with blood). Further it is obvious which sources were made to be seen as a smaller size, and which ones were planned as posters larger than the book pages.

Yet even as I lament the print-to-digital shift and what that means for the act of reading and learning, it is obvious that most of the illustrations (though infographics is the contemporary term for them) depend on computers, be it for their formal designs or the means of collecting data. The combination of computer-assisted design and data mining means that many complex facts are presented in beautiful ways, making the book a thoroughly enjoyable way to take in the complexity that is the world we occupy and shape.