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A world to discover

The diverse range of encylopedias on offer reflect global issues in intriguing new ways. Ian Selmes reports.

Information and access to it are said to be the keys to education and development. In the context of geographical understanding, encyclopedias with maps have been an enduring feature of publication lists.

They continue to be sought after by discerning parents, schools and libraries. The hope is that children and adults will be enticed to delve into them, for the sake of interest or knowledge, and to refer to them when the need arises. Recent publications suggest the phenomenon is thriving, although it is also evolving in intriguing ways.

The Kingfisher Geography Encyclopedia Kingfisher, pound;30

The Kingfisher World Atlas

By Philip Wilkinson

Kingfisher, pound;14.99

Kingfisher's new 488-page tome fits the traditional bill precisely. Through a mix of eye-catching colour images, clearly designed diagrams and uncluttered text, global issues and national details are opened up for everyone to learn about and understand.

Are you interested in how the Earth formed, or about magnetism, earthquakes, oceans, climate, landscape, or our impact on it? There is an introductory spread on each of these aspects and more. The final chapter provides a wealth of detail on world issues, from biomes to communications, health, trade and wealth. Naturally, there are chapters on continents and regions, with each page given over to an informative description of each country's location, flag, main features and significance. Confusingly, the countries are not in logical alphabetical order, but this does lead to a page hunt that encourages browsing and a wider study of the world.

An insight into the political and economic nature of encyclopedia publishing is illustrated by the fact that 20 pages are taken up with investigating America and a further 10 pages deal with Canada, while the UK is covered in four pages and almost all other countries are summarised on one or two pages each. For most people, however, this book will be just what they are looking for.

In case the full-blown geographical encyclopedia is too daunting and traditional, Kingfisher have also published an atlas a quarter of the length and half the price, but with a CD-Rom. The diagrams, maps and photos in the initial sections are shared between the books; the World Atlas has fewer of them and a more concise text. The use of double-page spreads means issues in the human and natural world are introduced, but no more. The regional sections rely entirely on a clearly drawn map showing location, boundaries, altitudes and place names to illustrate the generalised text.

Different coloured page backgrounds for each continent create clear chapters and enable rapid finding of one's desired region. However, there is only one country that is treated to more than one spread - America! Most are subsumed within their regional context, such as the Alpine States, West Africa or Southeast Asia. There is clearly only one superpower and the nation state is withering. But for the browser or younger reader this may prove adequate. The CD-Rom will allow 40 of the base maps (no settlements or labels) to be viewed and printed.

The State of the World Atlas: A Unique Survey of Current Events and Global Trends

Edited by Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal

Earthscan pound;11.99

The Atlas of Food: Who Eats What, Where, Why

By Erik Millstone and Tim Lang

Earthscan pound;12.99

If you really want to be challenged about our world and gain a better understanding of how it functions, as opposed to reading a selective description of nations and regions and basic geography, then the Earthscan series will certainly do this. The reader is guided to make sense of the information, to see the context and global picture behind the statistics and distributions.

In the updated seventh edition of State of the World Atlas, the nature of power, the differences between peoples, our rights, the costs of a peopled planet, the use of war and force, the global economy, and life and death issues are all investigated. It is in the juxtaposition of items such as trade and debt, drug trafficking and migrant workers, that understanding grows. With global patterns mapped and graphed in invitingly stylised forms, the issues and contradictions are made clear in the supporting text.

Similarly, the new Atlas of Food throws an even more detailed searchlight on the bizarre way in which the world feeds itself. With a similar design, this intriguing book investigates contemporary challenges, such as under and over-nutrition, food aid and pressure on water supplies. Other chapters investigate the issues of farming (from mechanisation to mad cow disease and genetic modification), trade (from animal and food miles to disputes and fair trade), processing, retailing and consumption.

These thoroughly researched, thoughtprovoking atlases present the evidence and leave the reader with even more questions.

Encyclopedia of People

DK pound;19.99

An encylopedia that is organised into continents, but there are few maps.

Rather than focusing on countries it looks at the peoples of the world. As a result there's no section on the UK, but there are pages looking at the Celtic people and the English. Similarly, the focus is on the Sherpas, rather than Nepal, and on the Dogon instead of Mali. And there are also sections on Marsh Arabs, Bengalis and Creoles. What is gained is a fascinating insight into the similarities and uniqueness of many groups that populate the world.

At the start of each chapter a map does provide locational information.

Otherwise, the book highlights the customs and passions in a selective manner that might be considered stereotypical. For example, England's sporting passion is for cricket and its culture is characterised by morris dancing, the Notting Hill Carnival, and the Angel of the North.

This is supposed to give a "sense of identity". It certainly shows the diversity and idiosyncrasies of humankind.

Seeing Through Maps: The Power of Maps to Shape our World View

By Ward Kaiser

Carel Press pound;17.50 for the book, pound;29.95 for the book and video pack

This book is based on the assumption that we all use maps, but many of us are not particularly good at it. It sets out to improve our skills and understanding. This includes our ability to discover the often hidden purpose of maps and to use them with greater awareness. Here, in black and white, is a readable and thoughtful journey through the nature of maps.

Starting with descriptions of the way things are, the perspective shows how this viewpoint may have political and cultural undertones; that the quality of a map is related to its purpose in being created. Distortion is inevitable. From Mercator to the many other projections, through the use of colour on maps and statistics in flow lines and cartograms, the mysteries of the map-makers' art are explained in a straightforward manner. The video is merely an illustrated lecture on the same theme, with a large portion devoted to the recognition of Tibet (or not).

The message is that maps are all a matter of perspective; that we should interpret them with care and an open mind. It makes a fascinating aid to every thinking person's interpretation of information.

Ian Selmes teaches geography at Oakham School, Rutland

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