Prisoners of Geography Book Review

This book had been widely recommended by a few friends, and it’s right up my alley, so I gave it a read. I would definitely recommend it especially to a general reader. It gives a good big picture overview of how geography has impacted the history of all the world’s regions, and how it continues to have an impact today. A book like this could be long and over-burdened with detail, which would make you lose sight of the big picture, but it isn’t. It covers a lot of ground in a few pages, and does so without cutting corners.

It is a very easy read. The author is a journalist, and he has the knack of making reading light work. This is not easy to do, and he does it well. The fact that he’s a TV journalist and not a print journalist makes this extra impressive. The language is simple, and the prose style is simple, without a lot of jargon or having to use and explain foreign words, which is hard to avoid in a book that covers the globe.

The second reason is that it’s very solidly researched. I know the Russian subject material in depth, and could not find anything that I thought was not true, and that is unusual even when I’m reading specialists. It must have taken a lot of work to give a good account of the history and geography of not just one region, but of all of them.

A third reason is that it’s scrupulously fair. Marshall is covering all the difficult questions like Taiwan, Kashmir and Ukraine. These are subjects that everyone has an opinion on, and many people will have a very strong opinion one way or the other. The readers with strong prejudices will be unhappy that he does not take their side, but they would have to admit that he does not take the other side either. It is very easy to resort to pejorative adjectives and name-calling, but Marshall is even-handed.

What didn’t I like about the book? Well, really the fact that it’s limited, but this is more of a feature than a bug. If a book like this is going to be readable, light, and cover the whole world, then it’s inevitable that it’s going to lack some depth. There’s a sequel, which I am looking forward to reading, and maybe this will add some depth and detail to the argument, and maybe look at some other arguments and theories.

What’s the depth that I would like? I’d like something that came between this book and other leading books in the same field like “Guns Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, “Why Nations Fail” by Acemoglu and Robinson and “The Dictator’s Handbook” by Bruce Bueno de Mesquite. All three draw up big theories of how countries enrich themselves, and they go beyond pure geographic determinism to look at how crops, livestock, natural endowments and institutions determine the development of countries.

One way of explaining it is that “Prisoners of Geography” would be a perfect book for week one of a lecture series on geopolitics, and these other books, among others, would develop the subject later in the term. Perhaps it’s good that there is a gap in the market (although there are loads of books about geopolitics) because that’s what I’m trying to address with my writings here. There are so many facets to global history, and this would be a perfect first book if you are looking to dip a toe in the water.

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