Like many Irish people with a taste for history, I woke up on Christmas morning to find my stocking stretched to bursting by the latest production from Cork University Press, The Atlas of the Irish Revolution.
The reaction to the book in Ireland has been amazing: the Bord Gais Irish Book of the Year, the Joe Duffy Liveline Listeners’ Choice, a collection of reviews that would make a saint blush, the first printing selling out within a few weeks. And the thing itself really is extraordinary.
Ten separate sections deal exhaustively with every conceivable aspect of the period between 1916 and 1923: from the nineteenth-century roots of the conflict, through detailed local and national accounts of the War of Independence and the Civil War, and on to analyses of cultural depictions of the period in Ireland and abroad. No fewer than one hundred and five individual scholars contribute, a Who’s Who of Irish cultural and historical studies, making it as much encyclopedia as atlas. And the visual presentation is stunning, with many freshly discovered photographs and publications.
But, but, but … I can’t help feeling something has gone too far. The paper is the heaviest and glossiest possible. The colour printing is the best money can buy. The scholarship is superb. The cartography is dazzling. The binding is superlative. But it’s not possible to actually read the thing.
The page size, 299 x 237mm, is standard coffee-table, good for graphics but hard to manage physically. Nine hundred and eighty-four of those pages is just too much. But the main problem is the weight. On my bathroom scales, it comes in at 5.1 kilos (11 and a quarter pounds). I’ve tried reading it in bed, in an armchair and sitting at a table, and had to give up each time. What it needs is a lectern.
CUP has produced the most beautiful book-like object imaginable. But it fails the first test of being a book, that it can be read.
I feel a bit like the boy in the parable of the emperor’s new clothes, except in this case the new clothes truly are magnificent. The problem is that they blot out the emperor .