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World atlas shows the earth in living color

Earthbook World Atlas, Graphic Learning International Staff. Tallahassee, Fla.: Graphic Learning International. 328 pp. $55. Concise Earthbook, 215 pp. $11.95. Given the tremendous commitment of time and money required to produce an atlas, a new one is an event - particularly one of the quality found in Graphic Learning's new ``Earthbook.''

The overall first impression of this atlas is a pleasing use of color. The colors are muted, but distinct. Herein lies one of the book's innovative features - the colors on the main maps represent environments, not elevations.

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From satellite data, a color key reflecting ecosystems (or vegetative patterns) has been evolved. The 19 categories include four shades of green for forests and three shades of yellow for deserts. Arable land is also shown in a yellow tone. Grassland pasture is a pale green. Tundra and lava field are both gray, with a hint of red in the gray for the lava field.

One way to check register - accuracy of color printing - is to look closely at the rivers. Are black city dots in the middle of rivers? Do red roads get mixed up with rivers? If so, an atlas has poor register; the colors are muddy. The register in ``Earthbook'' is excellent.

Hill shading - such as Richard Edes Harrison introduced to the American public in a series of maps in Fortune magazine during the early 1940s - is very well done in this atlas. There is good balance between shading and color. One does not overpower the other, and vertical relief does not appear exaggerated. This is where cartography becomes an art as well as a science.

One of the most difficult aspects of making an atlas is typography. The selection of various sizes and styles of type - to differentiate physical and cultural features - is a task calling for intuitive judgment. Here again, the overall effect produced in ``Earthbook'' is pleasing as well as legible.

Other critical points:

Erroneous ideas of size can result when various scales are used throughout a book. For instance, when Africa and Latin America are represented, it is common practice to fill the pages with as much land as possible. ``Earthbook'' uses the same scale, 1 to 25 million, for both. Scale is consistent throughout the book.

Many atlases place information about the earth and its planetary relations in introductory pages. In ``Earthbook,'' this is expanded to 95 pages on four main topics: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. The information in the encyclopedia section is contained in two-page spreads about a particular topic, each complete unto itself.

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The perfect atlas has yet to be produced, but this one is remarkably error free. On the whole, I would consider it a good investment for the home, but it should definitely be included in the budget for school libraries.

The ``Concise Earthbook'' edition, however, is not quite small enough for a normal pocket and too reduced for normal reading. It's like a toy.

Bob Saveland is a United States Coast Guard licensed captain.