Prisoners of Geography

We are all prisoners of geography — literally

I don’t normally offer book reviews or suggestions. I stopped being in book clubs years ago when I tired of other people ruining books I enjoyed. So I don’t feel like a free reading expert, and I don’t share often about literature. But today, given what is happening now in eastern Europe, I want to recommend Prisoners of Geography, written by Tim Marshall. I bought it years ago for our oldest son who is a geography whiz. When he was younger, he would zoom into a location on Google Earth and then ask me to guess where it was. He would then slowly zoom out, bit by bit, pausing after each change until he thought I should be able to get the answer about its location. He had to zoom out a lot. I rarely guessed correctly. He was often exasperated by my lack of knowledge about the globe. It was a game on his end, but it made me feel like a dolt. Ultimately, Joe took the book to college, and I forgot about it.

Then, a couple weeks ago we were with some neighbors when they mentioned they were reading that book together. I got intrigued. So I downloaded the book on Audible and started listening. It wasn’t long into the book that I realized I needed the maps the hard copy provided to help me visualize what was being discussed. So I picked it up and got back to work. It ended up being a timely reading choice because the day after I bought the hard copy and started learning about why we are prisoners of geography, Putin invaded Ukraine. For the first time, I began to understand Russia’s position in the world. I may not understand Putin (who does?), but at least I can somewhat comprehend now why Ukraine’s land is important to him and why he is so eager to reclaim it. Russia, both because of and despite its size, has geography issues.

The book also covers China, the United States, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic. The author, a journalist and leader on foreign affairs, has reported from forty countries and covered conflicts in the former Yugoslav republics, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. His vast geographical and political knowledge, combined with his journalism skills, make the book not only highly informative but also accessible and interesting. I now have a better understanding of China’s treatment of the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang province. I understand why the concept of manifest destiny was important to the creation of the United States as we know it today. I also have a far better handle on how and why wars have been fought in Europe and why some countries have fared better than others. (I’m looking at you, Poland.) I’ll have to finish the book to learn more about Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

If you are looking for a greater understanding of the politics of countries, their prosperity or lack thereof, or the ways they are constrained, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a little outdated because it was published in 2015, but it is still useful. If you’re a big-time history or geography geek, this might be too basic for you; but for the rest of the hoi polloi, it is an education in geography, history, and our current political dilemmas in 277 pages. It isn’t going to make you feel any better about the humanitarian nightmare developing as Putin’s army rolls into and bombs the free and innocent people of Ukraine, but it will help you make a little more sense about why Russia is the way it is. Because of the Internet, we are more a global people now than we have ever been before. If you want a way into understanding that world, this is it.

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