Atlases have always been keen to get one thing perfectly straight, and this one includes the familiar dark and sober section on 'Galaxies and Stars' ('the Sun, a yellow dwarf star, has been in much the same state for five thousand million years'). And it places the usual bewildering educational stuff up front; page after page of multicoloured maps pass before our stunned eyes, with elaborate keys to show temperature and mineral deposits, languages and religion, population and trade, weather patterns and GNP figures, soil groups, fossil types and something called 'food potential'.
There is a chart about the distribution of diets: Britain wears a grey-pink stripe - meat, dairy, sugar and potatoes - while Japan is mauve (fish) with a yellow smear of animal fat on the east coast. There is another showing world energy, which buries Britain under a heap of sarcastic little rectangles signifying coal. There is even one for evaporation.
And after a bit you think: no. Maps such as this are not utilitarian at all, though like many romantic things they sneak up in a robust and practical disguise. The A-Z street guide, spidery nautical charts, rough pencil sketches with a cross to show where the treasure is - these are truly useful. But the world atlas, the Aa to Zywiec, is a toy; centuries of technical endeavour have produced a lucid and moving universal language: blue water, brown earth, green forests and sudden icy bursts of white where the mountain peaks catch the sunlight.
The only pity is that the new atlas does not engrave, like its 17th century ancestors, odd sea beasts and yawing ships in the vasty deeps. And it abolishes the sweet puffed cheeks of the four winds, the wild-eyed dragons of heat and frost.
But you can still run your finger down the edge of Madagascar and wonder who sliced it off with such crisp accuracy. You can goggle at the quirk that turned Italy upside down, polished its toes and tossed it in the South Pacific. If you are feeling fanciful, you can pretend that Sri Lanka is a teardrop falling away from India; or that the Solomon Islands are a shoal of flying fish skimming south. Best of all, you can squint into the weird string of islands that drip away from Alaska, and wonder what it would be like to live in False Pass, nestling below the Shishaldin Volcano, a risky boat ride from the reassuring lights of Fort Randall.
Maps are geography, but they are also history: the migrations of people from the old world to the new are laid down like deposits of silt. Most of all, they are a tribute to the ardent poetry of names. The early travellers exported the harbours they had just left, as souvenirs. They endured rats and lice, pox, scurvy and squalls only to fall to their knees in another hemisphere and decide they were in Southampton or Newcastle. Some, not so lucky, crashed ashore in places called Disappointment Sound, Perseverance Point or Doubtful Bay.
It was partly a matter of luck: sometimes a sentimental impulse won through - as in Cape Flattery or Heart's Delight - but often the first man ashore was the navigator, and history was stuck for ever with places called One and a Half Mile Opening or Nine Mile Beach.
Intriguingly, the Iberian adventurers who travelled to South America conjured pretty titles like Buenaventura and Villa Dolores, or else they thanked God and called their new home Santa Maria or San Pedro. But the British migrants to America couldn't go more than a few miles without sticking in signposts saying London, Norfolk, Chelsea, York, Durham, Chester and so on. And was it a Franco-German fight or just a linguistic foul-up that led to the creation of New Berlinville, Pennsylvania?
The most popular name in the world, by the way, is Newport; and for that we can thank the lovely literal American way with words. Any square inch of the United States is littered with epic shadows - Sparta, Damascus, Seneca, Jefferson - but also quaint descriptive labels that sound like road-signs: Grizzly Bear Pass, Hungry Horse Dam, Stinking Water and Kwikpak. I bet people driving through Alabama have a good chuckle about the brainbox who built a town called Eclectic. And you can almost feel the swelling heart of the family that walked into Saskatchewan, crossed the river, breasted the bluff, saw the little house on the prairie and said to themselves: Hey, let's call this place Superb.
The most popular person in the world is Queen Victoria. She has had 23 places named after her, not to mention 44 bays, harbours, points, islands, falls and so on. There are just 22 Washingtons. The dark blues seem to have been more adventurous or more collegiate than the light: Oxford beats Cambridge by 22 to 17. It goes without saying that the Times, despite its unsurpassable efforts with the atlas, has inspired only a square or two; while the influential Independent, in spite of its youth, has fostered cities, rivers, points, coves . . . you name it. A special Times Atlas of the World poll reveals 24 Clintons and not a single Bush.
There isn't really a limit to the metaphorical wealth of this remarkable book. I was even able to locate an amazing- sounding place called Winder, Georgia. It looks great - perched between Atlanta and Athens, just south of the gorgeous Oconee river. On a clear day you can almost see the delicate Appalachian crown of Brasstown Bald, silhouetted against the northern sky.