Atlas of Vanishing Places: The Lost Worlds as They Were and as They Are Today by Travis Elborough

Atlas of Vanishing Places: The Lost Worlds as They Were and as They Are Today
by Travis Elborough

I reviewed this book with an eye towards its utility in the 1st year undergraduate history classroom. I teach 1st year and transfer students primarily, a 100-level World History course that has dual aims: first, introducing the basics of historical and empirical research skills (academic literacy, source/data collection, analysis, library use, written communication, among others) and second, emphasizing the connection between the present and the past through showing students the historical origins and contributing factors of some of the worlds environmental, economic, social, and political problems. We cover the history of racism, gendered disparities, queer histories, war, genocide, etc. In short, this is a decolonizing curriculum.

As many of my colleagues teaching similar courses can attest, professors in my position have a perennial problem finding suitable materials to use in our courses. Our materials need to be accessible in terms of language and cost; they need to be a certain length or have a certain depth to them that satisfies the intellectual integrity of the course, but is not overly theoretical or requires a prerequisite store of knowledge. Our courses have fixed learning outcomes that need to be met. Our students come from varied academic backgrounds, enter the classroom with varied levels of writing, reading, and analytical skills, which we have to accommodate.

A book like Atlas of Vanishing Places: The Lost Worlds as They Were and as They Are Today is a boon.

Here are the reasons why: first, the book is premised on the idea that artifacts as massive as cities and geological features are not eternal, immune to change or — more significantly — to human savaging. Elborough cites the Aral Sea and its incredibly rapid dissolution, within one person’s lifetime, from a thriving marine ecology to an arid nothingness, as the inspiration for this collection of places that once thrived as the Aral Sea did and are now as dry and lifeless as it has become. This book forces the reader to acknowledge the power of time and the inevitability of change. I can’t think of better evidence to emphasize the importance of history.

Second, the book is divided into short, digestible chapters which can be discretely cut out from the book and assigned, according to their fit into the course curriculum. Each chapter is about four to six pages long.

Third, the places and times explored in this collection cover the breadth and width of the world, every era of human history; it would be easy for an educator to focus in on the geographic region or time period of their choice. The book covers so much from ancient cities to contemporary and very recognizable landmarks: Timbuktoo to River Fleet in London.

Last, Elborough also provides the reader with sources and a bibliography. Some sources are better than others, but these are a gift to any student at the entry-point of a research project. Atlas of Vanishing Places: The Lost Worlds as They Were and as They Are Today serves as an excellent tertiary historical source, something to pique students’ interests, something to give them a kick start on a research project.

I could easily see the use of this book in survey level archaeology courses, in introductory cultural anthropology course, in ancient or modern world history classes. In my particular case, it works very well in the Humans and Environment module of my class, where we cover the relationship between human behavior and environmental outcomes.

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