Book Review: Prisoners of Geography

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One of the aims of my 2017 reading challenge is to intentionally and deliberately force to read more widely and randomly than normal. Most people will know that I am fascinated by, and have studied, theology, but less people know that one of my earlier passions was history, and to a lesser extent geography. The book I am briefly reviewing today focuses on the third of these, but also engages with key questions from the former two. I was given it for Christmas, devoured it over a few commutes, and have been voraciously recommending it to people since finishing it.

I am someone who likes to understand the various factors that contribute to things. Prisoners of Geography is a readable, accessible and engaging introduction to geopolitics. As a politically interested person, it can be bewildering keeping track of the different countries, states and regions that hit the news – let alone the ones that do not. In this book Tim Marshall, a well known and experience journalist, explores the role of geography in global politics. The subtitle is telling and inviting – Ten Maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. And, whilst his explanation goes beyond merely maps themselves (and there are in fact extra maps, so you get more than ten maps, bargain!), this gives the basic structure and appeal of the book.

Reading this book on my commute, to a Christian publisher and as a person of faith, I was struck by how much of a factor religion really is in global politics. Sometimes, it is notable by its absence. Certainly, the Middle East and the Indian Sub-continent cannot be understood without reference to religion. Marshall is to be commended for writing matter-of-factly about this, ignoring stereotypes (for the most part, if not entirely!) and easy answers. The treatment of religion in this book would be an examplary textbook for secular journalists, in my view. In terms of a contribution to some contentious Christian theological debates, his calm discussion of the Israel/Palestine dispute and related history is superb. I’ll be sure to recommend this section if I ever get round to writing more substantively about that conflict!

For a book about geography, this is one that sets countries and continents in context. This is a book that makes rivers, crops and mountains interesting – drawing a picture with words that complement brilliantly the pictoral representations in the maps. The relative similarities between Europe and China, geographically and developmentally speaking, are fascinating. So, too, is how Marshall analyses the rise of the USA (a fortuitous geographical location does help building a nation state/superpower!) and the ongoing struggles of Africa (geography and climate do matter for development, progress, trade and communication). I found the chapter on The Arctic to be the most intriguing – with a myriad of factors and interests deftly understood by the author, and, better still, communicated simply and usefully to the reader.

This is primarily a book about physical geography. Whilst that may sound dull, the writer’s obvious knowledge and passion shines through, bringing rivers (he does like rivers – and this book will show you just how important they are) to life. Marshall is also superb at discussing other elements of geography, history, demography and most notably religion. This is a book that does what it says on the front cover – no small feat – and does it with a realistic and hopeful conclusion. I’ve already started widely recommending this book, including to my wife and some close friends, and I’d recommend it to anyone who reads, and cares about the world outside their front door.


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