The World, Explained in Ten Maps

Prisoners of Geography

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

I’ve been sick much of the past week, with rest the best prescription.  As I’ve rested, I’ve read.  And read.  And read some more.

I should get sick more often.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World is a book I bought for my father for Christmas.  But in leafing through it at Politics & Prose, it piqued my interest, so I picked up a second copy for myself.  I’m glad I did.

Author Tim Marshall is a long-time British foreign affairs journalist.  In this easy-to-read yet thought-provoking book, Marshall writes “The landscape imprisons their leaders (of all nations, big and small), giving them fewer choices and less room to maneuver than you might think.”

This is a geopolitical book, which looks at the ways in which international affairs can be understood through geographical factors.  For my friends in the Foreign Service or at the World Bank, this is no doubt old hat.  But I don’t read much in either geopolitical theory or international affairs, and so I found this a useful introduction to the field.

Marshall’s chapters look at ten different regions.  Each examines the geopolitics of the past (how the nations were formed), current issues, and potential future conflicts.  It is a fascinating book – part travelogue, part history, part current events (up to mid-summer of 2015), and all engaging.

Marshall begins with Russia, followed by chapters on China and the United States.  He is breezy, but to the point.  (As in, Putin “may well go to bed each night, say his prayers, and ask God:  ‘Why didn’t you put some mountains in Ukraine.'”)  I’ve traveled a bit around the Black Sea, and so have visited many of the places that give Putin – and thus the rest of the world as well – heartache.  Marshall explains why China is so bent on becoming a major naval power.  And with the United States, Marshall notes that we have

Location, location, location.  If you won the lottery, and were looking to buy a country to live in, the first one the real estate agent would show you would be the United States of America….

It’s in a wonderful neighborhood, the views are marvelous, and there are some terrific water features, the transport links are excellent, and the neighbors?  The neighbors are great, no trouble at all.

I was obviously on firm ground (no pun intended) in this chapter, but less well versed when reading about Africa – beginning with the third or fourth paragraph where Marshall notes that “the world’s idea of African geography is flawed.  Few people realize just how big it is. This is because most of us use the standard Mercator world map.  This, as other maps, depicts a sphere on a flat surface and thus distorts shape.”  One attempt to show the correct land mass is the Gall-Peters projection:

Gall-Peters Projection

Gall-Peters Projection of the World (from Wikipedia)

Suffice it to say that Africa is large!

The chapter on the Middle East filled in some holes in my understanding, although I’ve read a good bit about the region in the past decade.  One of the most fascinating chapters was the last, on the Arctic.

This was a terrific book, from start to finish.  The only disappointment – surprisingly – was the maps.  (Imagine that!)  They are not terribly clear or illuminating, and I could have used more of the zoomed-in versions that cropped up occasionally in a discussion of a particular portion of the region.  I could imagine this book would be great in an interactive e-book format.  In any event, it is highly recommended.

Now my wish is that every Republican presidential candidate would have to read this book and be given a test before we let them back on a debate stage.

There I go again…must be the sickness returning.

More to come…


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