12 Days of Reading Recommendations, Day 7: Prisoners of Geography

Like a lot of people this year, I've availed myself of a few different excellent library systems and gotten a lot of reading done. I thought for an end-of-year treat, I'd share the books I'd recommend and what makes them worth reading. And wouldn't you know it, my reading just happens to sort of self-sift into twelve different subject areas, so it's twelve days of reading! Each day's recommendations newsletter will clock in at 600 words or less, so you can gulp this quick bite when you need a minute to yourself. Enjoy giving your Libby app a vigorous workout or making some independent bookseller very happy.



In addition to meditating to Mendelev's great work, I also get back into focus by doing the Sporcle countries of the world quiz. Every time I filled in countries, it felt like I was making promises to my future self: I'll get to go there, I'll get to return to there, I'll visit there too. So I did a lot of armchair traveling.

Guidebooks only made me depressed, so I moved on to histories of different regions and then went even broader: how geography shapes countries and politics.

The historic and geographic construction that's caught my imagination is the Silk Road, because it rather neatly everts the normal understanding of "western civilization, " i.e. John Hirst's assertion in The Shortest History of Europe:

European civilisation is unique because it is the only civilisation which has imposed itself on the rest of the world. It did this by conquest and settlement; by its economic power; by the power of its ideas; and because it had things that everyone else wanted.

Au contraire, argues in Peter Frankopan in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. One can dispute this on factual grounds -- the cities along the Silk Road routes from Italy to China and back didn't flourish because a bunch of otherwise nomadic cultures decided to settle down and wait for someone to bring them some Swiss cheese; they thrived because they supported a trade infrastructure that fed European elites' craving for goods they couldn't produce at home.

They also thrived because the cultures that founded and coexisted in these cities had a little special element the Europeans hadn't yet considered. As Frankopan wrote:

While the Muslim world took delight in innovation, progress and new ideas, much of Christian Europe withered in the gloom, crippled by a lack of resources and a dearth of curiosity.

(I watched Alfred de Montesquiou's The Silk Road series on Amazon Prime this summer and his reportage backed that assertion: "syncretic culture," he called it, meaning the fusion of elements from different cultures and creeds.)

The story of the Silk Road as Frankopan tells it is one of deep time -- history as unrolled over centuries -- and of how cultures rise and fall as their leaders rise and fall in response to circumstances.

It's impossible not to read the book and sense how the happy accident of a continent that sprawled from east to west helped the routes along; that sense is confirmed in Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics by Tim Marshall. Each chapter examines a different region and explains how geography equals political destiny for each of them. The premise of the book reminded me very strongly of Jared Diamond's assertions in Guns, Germs and Steel (read a very long time ago) and I circled back to his work to see how his geography-equals-culture thing was going. Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis was exactly what the year demanded: a book that lays out how individuals' senses of national identity and governments' commitments to national policy can steer a country. As Diamond writes:

It’s neither possible nor desirable for individuals or nations to change completely, and to discard everything of their former identities. The challenge, for nations as for individuals in crisis, is to figure out which parts of their identities are already functioning well and don’t need changing, and which parts are no longer working and do need changing.

Reading world history made national news seem a lot less stressful.



So the Sporcle "Countries of the World" quiz requires one to fill in the 197 countries the United Nations formally recognizes. You're all very smart and I'm sure you can rattle them off -- possibly even singing them -- but in case you're a little hazy on the placement of Guyana versus Guinea, I recommend working your way through the Sporcle playlist, "Countries of the World," which is comprised of quizzes by continent, so you can whiz through the regions you know and bone up on the ones you don't. We can save the pedagogical debate on the part-whole approach later -- I'm just suggesting it if you're all, "I'll never nail the Oceania region! Besides, Palau's not a country, Palau is the band that sang 'Heart and Soul' in the late 1980s." No. That was T'Pau. Palau is a nation and won't it be fun to know where it is?


FOOTER TEXT, BECAUSE THIS IS THE END OF THE EMAIL: Thank you all for reading! It is delightful to know you're all out there -- now add to the army of readers by telling your pals to subscribe! Talk to me via Twitter because I love hearing from you. And I have at last noticed that you can send me email via TinyLetter, so I'll finally answer those emails! What a time it is to be alive.