'New Geography' Aims a Lens on a Dynamic Planet

By John Van Pelt. John Van Pelt is the Monitor's design director. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 18, 1991 | Go to article overview

'New Geography' Aims a Lens on a Dynamic Planet


John Van Pelt. John Van Pelt is the Monitor's design director., The Christian Science Monitor


THIS extravagantly illustrated book is as suited to a coffee table as to a reference library, but in either case, expect it to be well-thumbed.

Page after page, "The Real World" dazzles with macro views of satellite imagery, photographic panoramas, and micro detail in meticulously crafted diagrams. All this is accompanied by captivating text that fulfills the promise of consultant editor Risa Palm's preface: "Geography can help us understand not only what is where, but why it is there...."

Those words define the "new geography" of the book's title. Old geography was vastly more technical, and stressed rote memorization. New geography, as exemplified here, makes traditional studies such as geology, demographics, cartography, history, and economics accessible in a popular idiom.

It seems courageous to suggest that this book provides answers to age-old questions of politics and prejudice, but in fact geography has always held that promise. "The Real World" offers these answers to more than the ordained economist or historian. Even as divisive an issue as patterns of race and income in Philadelphia is looked at through the cool lens of global urbanization.

Yet in the fascinating connections they draw, the editors avoid lazy interpretations and sensationalistic trivia. This is not McGeography.

Cities - and their patterns of streets and dwellings - reflect climate, cultural influences, religion, military strategy, commercial needs, and political phil- osophy. Thumbnail-sized locator maps help the reader navigate the globe as Paris, Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Miletus (Greece), and Fes (Morocco) are highlighted as examples.

Islands, contrary to expectation, are not usually singular nation states. Most are either part of larger political units or are subdivided into smaller states. This information is part of the lesson on how natural and political boundaries interact. Facts are played in context; the book presents the use of mud in "vernacular" architecture, not in a chapter on Kenyan nomads as a traditional text might, but in a chapter on homebuilding. …

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