THIS extravagantly illustrated book is as suited to a coffee table as to a reference library, but in either case, expect it to be well-thumbed.Page after page, "The Real World" dazzles with macro views of satellite imagery, photographic panoramas, and micro detail in meticulously crafted diagrams. All this is accompanied by captivating text that fulfills the promise of consultant editor Risa Palm's preface: "Geography can help us understand not only what is where, but why it is there...." Those words define the "new geography" of the book's title. Old geography was vastly more technical, and stressed rote memorization. New geography, as exemplified here, makes traditional studies such as geology, demographics, cartography, history, and economics accessible in a popular idiom. It seems courageous to suggest that this book provides answers to age-old questions of politics and prejudice, but in fact geography has always held that promise. "The Real World" offers these answers to more than the ordained economist or historian. Even as divisive an issue as patterns of race and income in Philadelphia is looked at through the cool lens of global urbanization. Yet in the fascinating connections they draw, the editors avoid lazy interpretations and sensationalistic trivia. This is not McGeography. Cities - and their patterns of streets and dwellings - reflect climate, cultural influences, religion, military strategy, commercial needs, and political phil- osophy. Thumbnail-sized locator maps help the reader navigate the globe as Paris, Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Miletus (Greece), and Fes (Morocco) are highlighted as examples. Islands, contrary to expectation, are not usually singular nation states. Most are either part of larger political units or are subdivided into smaller states. This information is part of the lesson on how natural and political boundaries interact. Facts are played in context; the book presents the use of mud in "vernacular" architecture, not in a chapter on Kenyan nomads as a traditional text might, but in a chapter on homebuilding. Global warming is treated as a serious threat - it has four entries in the book's excellent index, including "threat to micro-states," where we learn that a rise in sea level would eliminate the island nation of Kiribati. The chapter "Humans Emergent" gives an account of evolution, skirting the thornier issues of biological determinism. It continues through 1492 to the modern age, with timely echoes of 1992's coming quincentennial of Columbus's famed odyssey. "Before Columbus," readers learn, "people, animals, and crops were largely confined to their own continents." Dozens of examples are given of the far-reaching consequences of "European conquest." Minor criticisms: The type size is a little small for comfort, and the captions often don't immediately identify what's in the picture. The overall design feels self-conscious but is nevertheless effective and makes the most of the wealth of illustration. The book places readers at a new mental frontier: "If we could hold the Earth in the palm of our hands...." The echo of that metaphor is sustained in every passage. Only now, 30-odd years into the space age, can we take it so literally. As one reads, one enters a "now we know everything" frame of mind. But the writing doesn't sound conceited, even though it treats every phenomenon and conflict as the interplay of understood forces. One day "The Real World" will fall victim to the advancing times and seem dated or slanted or narrow. In phrases such as "in the late 20th century" one can read the editors' attempt to extend the book's life span. But it's possible the science of geography has reached a pinnacle in this volume. The questions that remain as the 21st century approaches - questions of food and population, spiritual and moral values, fairness and equality, questions of environmental protection, quality of life, and peace amid nuclear proliferation - are for leaders and for the people. The geographers have done their job for now.