AT THE END of World War I, Lord Northcliffe, then proprietor of the London Times, said that "a world re-made must be a world re-mapped" and started the work that led to the publication of the Times Survey Atlas of the World. One-third of the 112 double-page maps were devoted to Europe, then the center of the known world.

With John Bartholomew & Son, the Edinburgh map-making firm, the London Times has recently revised and reissued the Comprehensive Edition, the sixth in the distinguished line of atlases since Lord Northcliffe's assumptions about a new geographical order (the last was revised in 1967).

In collaboration with the London Times, The New York Times has prepared a Concise Atlas to make the Bartholomew maps affordable for families and students. As well, Rand McNally has revised its international atlas, making it a banner year for armchair geographers.

The books, at least for now, have managed to keep pace with independence and revolution. The spellings of cities, notably in China, have fallen in line with current usage. But, more than spelling, what distinguishes these atlases is their detail: for example, the London Times Atlas clearly shows the lighthouse on Isabel Island in the Straits of Magellan; the New York Times Concise Atlas indicates the oil and natural gas pipelines under the North Sea; and the Rand McNally edition devotes an entire double page to Calcutta and the lower Ganges.

The purpose of an atlas, especially with a globe nearby, is to provide the reader with a sense of place in the world. Better than any other atlas available in the bookshops, the London Times Atlas reduces the complexities of the world's terrain to manageable proportions, a feat as remarkable in our day, despite all the satellites and infra-red cameras, as it was in Ptolemy's in the second century. There are 123 double-page color maps, and such is the attention to detail that, for example, there are eight pages on Spain alone. The volume is an achievement that invites hyperbole, and is well worth the price.

The New York Times wanted its Concise Atlas to be an affordable replica of the grand master, but, unfortunately, it pales by comparison. Despite the merits of the Concise edition, it is unable to duplicate the grace, geographical order, and scale of the Comprehensive Edition. One is genuine; the other ersatz.

The Concise Atlas has 147 pages of color maps. Many are excellent and would serve any family or businessman, but, overall, the book fails to stir the imagination, which must be the charge of any atlas. The maps of the United States and Europe are cluttered with names and hard to follow. Central America is presented in a haphazard way with El Salvador, as in reality, slipping off the page. The city maps seem drawn only to suit aficionados of the interstate highway. What works on a majestic scale in the Comprehensive atlas reduces poorly in the Concise edition, which has aspects of a duchess squeezed into a mini-skirt.

Better for the same amount of money, and superb in its own right, is the Rand McNally New International Atlas, which is not only much improved over earlier editions, but labeled in five languages. Also the spellings are as they would be found in the country: thus Cairo is Al-Qahirah. It gives the book unusual accuracy and excitement.

The Rand McNally city maps rival those of the London Times Atlas; its excellent U.S. maps have none of the clutter and confusion of the Concise Atlas; and its 288 pages of color maps are clearer than the 147 in the Concise. One delightful drawing of the Suez Canal and the Nile Basin confirms Herodotus' belief that "Egypt is an acquired country, a gift of the river." All other temptations are here for any owner to make nightly prowls through its pages.

The release of these atlases could not come at a better time. If ever there was a citizenry in need of remedial geography, it is that of the United States. Especially now that the Reagan administration and its academic counselors have proposed reclaiming the abandoned lands and the influence lost over the past decade, it might be a good idea for persons other than strategic planners to have an idea where the country is going and why.

The last time the United States departed for new frontiers was in the early 1960s, and then few had any idea where Vietnam was or how it was spelled, making it that much easier for the warrior intellectuals to convince the public of the urgency of intervention. Likewise, I doubt that many now sympathetic to idea of using force in the Middle East to defend vital interests, as everything at the time of war becomes, realize the size of the region (it is 4200 miles from Istanbul to the fortress at Diego Garcia), its climate (most of Saudia Arabia averages less than four inches of rain a year), or its paucity of rail lines and highways.

Despite the dangers that stem from an ignorant view of the world, Americans seem to remain smug in their geographical isolation. During the confirmation hearings on foreign policy, both the secretary of state and the evangelical senators seemed more interested in the landscape of Washington (Whose phone was tapped?) than in the rest of the world (Can Mexico City support a population of 17 million?).

In New York, a best-selling poster in the curio shops is the now-familiar rendering of the New Yorker's narrow world. Only vague outlines surface on the horizon west of the Hudson River. California practically borders New Jersey. China is somewhere beyond the haze. Is it any wonder, then, that a military coup in Turkey passes almost without comment, despite the strategic importance of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, or that Argentina, the eighth largest country on earth, is only mentioned when someone wins the Nobel Prize?