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.

The Midnight Library And The Lives We Left Unlived

I started reading (okay, fine, listening to) a new book today, now that I have finished The Gifts of Imperfection. This book is a novel by Matt Haig entitled The Midnight Library. My sister mentioned it in passing twice last week and seemed so taken by it I decided to go ahead and get on the bandwagon. I also jumped on the Wordle bandwagon yesterday, but that matters not at this point. In any case, I’m a few hours into this damn book, and my mind is in classic overthink mode. This means it is a meaty story.

The Midnight Library is about a woman named Nora Seed who, feeling lost and depressed about her life, decides she no longer wants to live. She takes some pills and washes them down with wine. She drifts off and ends up at a library. The librarian, a woman Nora knew from her childhood, shows her a book filled with Nora’s life regrets and tells her she can go to any of a million different iterations of places her life might have led had she made different choices. She simply needs to select a regret and she will be transported to that divergent life, already in progress. The books allow Nora to answer the age old question “what if.”

It has taken me a long time and a lot of therapy to land at a place where I no longer abuse myself over my “what if” regrets. I’ve discussed that here before. Your what ifs are impossible because in the past you made choices based on who you were at that time using information you had available to you at that time. Looking back now, with a different mind and different experiences, alters the light you shine on those past events, people, and opportunities you let slip away. It makes them either shinier and more attractive or duller and less attractive but, either way, your current consciousness transforms them into something they are not. All of this makes our regrets like our worries…thinking about them will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.

I am curious to see where Nora lands after exploring these alternate-ending lives. If she finds a better existence for herself or if she decides to go back to her old life or if she dies from her overdose as she had originally intended. But all this thinking about disparate endings to our one (as far as we know it) life has me stuck on one thought. We can’t go back and change our past, which has led us to our present. We are, for better or worse, here where we’ve arrived as the result of millions of small, insignificant choices and a few quite large ones. Our story, thus far, has already been written. It’s the future that has yet to be determined. In some cases, our what ifs might still be able to come to fruition if we take steps in that direction today. We just have to find the courage to believe we can change the outcome. If we couldn’t do it in our past, perhaps we can now.

And while I noodle on what I want my life outcome to appear, for as much control as I have over it, please don’t comment here about the book if you have finished it. I will likely finish it tomorrow, and we can talk about it then. I look forward to it.