The “bestseller” status of this book suggests a widespread desire to make sense of a troubled world without having to invest too much time in this. A paperback compact enough to read easily on a commuter train, which takes less than three hundred pages to divide the world neatly into ten major areas (with the odd omission of Australia and New Zealand), each covered in a freestanding chapter, seems like a relatively easy, painless means of getting up to speed.
So why, despite the undeniably fascinating subject matter, did I find this book so hard to read? It is partly because the “unifying theme” of “prisoners of geography” proves so woolly when applied to such “broad brush” chapters. The author continually refers to physical geography to explain differences between areas – why some have prospered while others are poverty-stricken, some stable while others are torn apart by conflict, some fragmented while others united, but many of his statements are open to challenge as being fatuous or contradictory. He cannot avoid slipping into the historical and cultural factors which affect global politics, and often they seem to outweigh geography in their influence. The term “prisoners” also seems a misnomer in more prosperous parts of the world like the US which he is adamant remains “the planet’s most successful country” without addressing its high levels of inequality, some of which are the result of geography.
So, because the book is so wide-ranging, it becomes oversimplified to the point of distorting facts, and arbitrary as regards the points selected so that important factors are omitted or not given due weight. Too often, the author drifts into a dry recital of facts, with a lack of analysis, which he has to lighten up with verbal gimmicks: “How do you solve a problem like Korea?”
“The ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics” prove to be nothing of the kind: just location maps to remind you where the countries covered by a chapter are. Also, why does the untitled map of Western Europe include an undifferentiated Eastern Europe, and why does the latter receive so little coverage as an area in which people have been affected so much over the centuries by their geographical location?
Journalists often make a better job of explaining a country or region than specialists, because they do not get bogged down in detail, and know how to present information and ideas in an accessible way. An example of this is Martin Sixsmith’s recent “Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild West”. The problem with “Prisoners of Geography” is that it is too superficial, and does not have a sufficiently coherent theme or framework to hold a wide-ranging approach together. This book has been well-promoted, but is in fact much less insightful and enlightening than it could have been.