The Atlas of the Irish Revolution: the emperor’s wonderful new clothes

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.

A small part of the contents. Click to see the full listing

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 .

7 thoughts on “The Atlas of the Irish Revolution: the emperor’s wonderful new clothes”

  1. Glad to hear someone else complain about the extremely heavy Irish history books. I have two of them and I always think it was a big mistake especially for those of us who like to dip into them often!!

  2. I agree with you John, that this book is physically challenging and that’s
    why I’ve had it for months now and still have not read most of it.
    However I am still very happy that I bought it and have it to intellectually
    and emotionally ingest over the long haul.

    1. But not for a book like this – illustrations, and maps especially, are a bit of a washout in e-format.

      But Jillian’s suggestion is so very sensible

  3. Totally agree, I don’t understand why it can’t have been done as part of a box set with each section in a separate volume allowing us to really do a deep dive rather than quick dips. It is a wonderful work but will sit on many shelves unread and unappreciated for its richness.

  4. I so agree. I laughed out loud reading your post. At the same time, I think it’s meant to be a resource, not a book to be read straight through. I’ve made use of it as such. I’m writing a book about the history of an Irish Catholic church in Harlem New York. So I dip into the Atlas for issues and aspects I need. As such it’s truly brilliant.

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