‘Prisoners of Geography’ by Tim Marshall

Compared with the books that I usually review, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography may seem like something of a left field addition to The Unseen Library. So I figured a brief explanation was in order…

With a two week working holiday in the US, I figured there would be a lot of time to get some reading done. Indeed, knowing I would have around 50 hours of time in transit alone, I set about getting a couple of ARCs to add to the book that I was already reading. So, on Wednesday night, with my kindle stocked with new reading material, I set off for the airport. The only problem was that my kindle was still sitting on the coffee table back at my apartment. As luck would have it, a friend had given me Prisoners of Geography the day before, suggesting it would be of interest to me, and I tossed it into my backpack. So with no other reading material for what ended up being a 36 hour journey, I got stuck in.

As it turns out, my friend wasn’t wrong.

Subtitled “Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics”, Marshall’s work could perhaps best be described as ‘popular politics’. He approaches the history and foreign policy of various countries and regions from the perspective of the geographical hand that they were dealt. This is done using language and narrative ideas that are far more suited to mass audiences that you are likely to find in any journal publication or historical tome. Indeed, it is the broad scope of the context, looking at history, geography, AND politics, that allows for Marshall to use more general and accessible writing conventions.

With hundreds of countries and thousands of years of history to base his work around, I thought Marshall did an excellent job of collating and arranging the most pertinent ideas in the book. Beginning with Russia, the US, and China, the superpowers of the 20th and 21st Century, Marshall was able to create narrative points that ran throughout all the chapters that followed. Certainly I was already aware of these superpowers’ foreign policies and involvement on the global stage, but the geographical influences gave a fascinating new perspective to it all (China trying to develop a secure supply route to Pakistani ports in the Indian Ocean, for example). I also enjoyed Marshall’s speculations as to how geography may affect these political situations in the future. The chapter on the ever-escalating jockeying at the north pole and Arctic Circle in general was particularly enlightening in that regard.

While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m happy that I forgot my kindle (what am I going to read next?), I am happy that it pushed me to reading Prisoners of Geography while on the road.  Certainly having an interest in the topic made my reading experience particularly enjoyable , but Marshall’s writing style and ability to insert an interwoven narrative throughout the book heightened my interest further. I must give great thanks to my friend for the timely loan, and I fully intend to pass the book on to someone else who I think will appreciate it.

The Librarian

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