BEIRUT: In the 20th century, the atlas was one of the cornerstones of learning. In the age before television had anything to do with satellites, before there was an Internet to blossom with (both reliable and dubious) information about the universe – before, in short, the village went global – the atlas was a principal means of finding out about a world you couldn’t see.
Yet there are some who believe the book industry can still provide a comprehensive and useful reading of the earth’s geography in its various aspects.
Witness “The Student’s Picture Atlas,” published in Arabic by Little’s Library. Running less than 300 pages, this book is made up of three chapters. The first touches on the solar system and its planets, including the earth. It provides detailed information on our planet, in terms of tectonic, economic and geographical changes, resources, seasons and the types of plants and animals existing in the various climates of its surface.
The second chapter outlines the world’s countries in alphabetical order, citing specific data like geographical size, languages, currency, geography and main economic sectors in each.
The final chapter unfurls 45 maps of the world’s continents and the countries spreading over them.
To facilitate the readers’ comprehension of technical terms and natural phenomena, the three sections include 1,300 photos and graphics, all taken in 2012.
Little’s Library has been in the atlas business since 1978, yet Carla Badran, the author of “The Student’s Picture Atlas,” explains that her work doesn’t simply cover the same ground as every atlas that’s come before.
The new work focuses more on the pollution and other forms of environmental degradation afflicting the planet than her previous atlases.
“In the previous version, only a page and a half was dedicated to environment and pollution, but in this one, there are eight pages,” she says. “Pollution has become significant.”
Chapter one’s section “Environment, Pollution, Damage, Biodiversity and Water,” highlights the repercussions of pollution and provides related statistics. As the text says, “Our environment, a main element in our survival, is under threat due to our different activities.”
It goes on to indicate that 2.3 million people die in the world every year because of air pollution, while 8 million die from lack of potable water and want of water purification technology. It outlines the repercussions of air pollution on health, as reflected in respiratory problems, coughs, headaches and so forth. Acid rain, light pollution and ozone depletion are also highlighted.
In her introduction, Badran writes that the atlas has all the elements to make it an “ideal reference,” one that satisfies the needs of all interested people, “whether at home, office, or school.”
Yet the 264-page-book has lots of scientific terms that non-specialist readers, and students in particular, may find difficult to fathom. Another possible obstacle facing Lebanese students, most of whom study the sciences in English or French, is the fact these terms are in Arabic.
Badran maintains that a student interested in a certain atlas section will probably be familiar with its terms in various languages.
“A student will not read the entire Atlas,” she explains. “Since it is not a novel, he or she will focus on what they are interested in, and for sure they will be familiar with the related terms [in Arabic], since they are interested in the subject.”
Badran also points out that the style of her work is less challenging than the previous atlas, and that this work is smaller than the previous one.
“The style adopted is easier, even a sixth-grade student can read it,” she says “unlike the previous version which could only be read by secondary school students.”
Maps depicting the Arab world demonstrate the changes that have accompanied the Arab Spring – the simple “Libya” has replaced the Gadhafi-era formulation of the country’s name. The atlas also notes that two states have developed from South Sudan’s 2011 secession from Khartoum.
Apart from these name changes, maps feature nothing new and their design is similar to previous ones.
“In order to draw new maps, you need a cartographer,” Badran explains. “It is a costly process. The words on the maps are handwritten and rewriting them takes a long time.”
In the blossoming Kindle universe, some observers might find the idea of a bound atlas to be a quaint throwback to an earlier age of knowledge dissemination. While acknowledging that most of her atlas’ content could be found on internet, Badran insists that the atlas is superior to online surfing.
“There is a certain way by which you present information to a person,” Badran explains. “There is no chronology [similar to the one in this atlas] on Google.
“On Google you have to search separately for every article” she adds. “When you have everything in a book, it’s quicker, nicer and encourages the reader to go through the entire book.”
“Student’s Picture Atlas” is published by Little’s Library and is available at Librairie Antoine.