A fascinating, site-specific history of modernity

Mark Ovenden’s Railway Maps of the World is an amazing assortment of charts, timetables, stats, photos, and posters—as well as a great many railway maps. It kicks off with the world’s first railroad (which the Corinthians built, in 600 B.C.) and ends with a 50-page atlas (“the first of its kind”) that “aims to present the official current national railroad map of every country where rail service is operating at the time of the book’s preparation (fall 2010).” The images are spectacular. But this is the kind of coffee-table book in which the captions really do matter.

Take page 46, which sets Amtrak’s national network (down to 500 stations and 34,000 kilometers of track) against the 40,000 stations and 408,933 kilometers of track that once made America’s railway system the largest in the world. Ovenden calls the current system “a testament to the power of the automotive industry and the triumph of lost opportunities over common sense”—and he has equally intelligent things to say about the other 119 countries surveyed here. It all adds up to a shadow history of the modern world itself.

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