A Review of Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography

This book was infuriating. And I’m glad I bought it only for half price at London Heathrow Airport. A sticker on its front cover still reminds me of that with the somewhat cryptic Buy 1 get 1 Half Price. The subtitle of this book, Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, promised greatness and so the thought, of what I’ll have to write about its maps in this review saddens me before I’ve even started to put pen to paper.

I also wanted this review to be a bit different than usual. I’ve been feeling a bit stifled by the strict format of my reviews lately. Multiple sections and subheadings are probably helpful if you want to see if you’d like a book, but to me, they also seemed like an obstruction to improving my writing. I wanted to try more wandering approaches to writing. I wanted to explore my thoughts around a book and its topics more than to be a straight-up guide if you should buy a book or not. Of course, this isn’t going to mean, that I won’t give my recommendation, but I don’t think I want to break down my opinions into clear bullet points, I check off with every review, anymore.

Let us go back to that day in early 2019 at Heathrow waiting for my flight back home. I had held the German translation of this book in my hands many times when I was perusing the local bookstore in Freiburg. I had always been fascinated by its cover, the striking colours, the map, and well the title too. It promised a fascinating look into how geography, history and politics interacted, but in the end, I always opted to lay it back down, and pick another book or 10.

But there at Heathrow, I was in the mood for non-fiction, and since it was a “buy two, get one free”-type of deal, I picked this right after Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. I don’t think, I had even flipped through its pages. Nevertheless, I had convinced myself that this book would make for a few interesting hours of map-nerdery. After all, at that time, I was studying History and Geography at the University of Freiburg. This should have been right up my alley.

Topological Map of Germany
This was never meant as more than a nerdy joke.

Prisoner of Geography ticks a few boxes for me. Its style is gripping and direct. Its knowledgeable tone reminded me of reading Henry Kissinger’s On China when I was about 14 years old. But the air of knowledge this book surrounds itself with is more of a veil. Behind it, there are a lot of easy explanations for complicated problems and unchecked biases.

A historian would probably call this book’s approach to history teleological and therefore flawed. When they say teleological, they mean nothing else than putting the cart before the horse, i.e. explaining history by its result. There are good arguments for why Tibet is strategically important for China. But were Tibet not de-facto part of China, many of the geographic arguments, especially around Tibet’s inaccessibility, could run the exact opposite way.

And that’s at least one of the aspects that make this book disappointing. It fails to question the authors and the reader’s assumptions. It tells you nothing that keeping up with the news couldn’t have told you. And its point about resource distribution and the value of natural borders isn’t exactly a new or groundbreaking idea. Nevertheless, the book promises to break the ground for you while it fails to question why empire, why war, or how a certain government comes to power even.

Especially in its chapters on China and the US, Prisoners of Geography fails to consider path-dependencies and interdependencies in government beyond the geopolitical and well manages an inexplicable weird leap in characterising Mexico/US-Relations as solely defined by a notion of the illicit drug trade that foregoes any examination of why things come to be illegal or not.

A bear head, in front of a floating map of russia

And I get it. This book devotes a chapter to one continent or giant country at a time. There’s not much room to bring out the nuances; as such Marshall’s arguments remain a description of what is, without the imagination to think through the consequences of that weirdly gripping argumentation.

Frankly, I didn’t expect groundbreaking arguments from this book. That’s not what it sets out to do. It sets out to illustrate the world of geopolitics with eye-opening maps. That’s what the book’s subtitle promises, and something I’m willing to indulge in a lot. I spent hours watching the short weekly show Le Dessous des Cartes on the Franco-German television channel Arte when I was a kid. It always was a delightfully interesting view into maps and politics, just detailed enough to fill a 10 min tv show. Prisoners of Geography, however, misses that mark by leagues.

The maps in this book are disappointing. They are bog-standard political maps in black and white. Bearing only hints at topography and one detail each, that genuinely fails to impress. Drawing arrows to illustrate the Greenland-Iceland-UK-gap is just not even close to mapmaking that could open eyes.

Marshall didn’t even integrate these bare-bones maps into the text. There is no reference to them in writing. And it seems like this book was written with the maps as an afterthought, preserving the possibility to read it on text-only e-readers without trouble.

Summary

Potala Palace underneath a blue sky with scattered clouds.

In the end, this book fails to impress me. While Marshall manages to find a style that’s gripping to read and authoritative at once, this book falls down on multiple levels of actual content. The promised maps are bland and next to useless, and the argumentation contains little more nuance than the writing of a foreign-policy hawk who sees a military threat in anything. At least to some degree, I wish this book had kept the old idiom in mind: “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.

Would I recommend this book? I don’t think so. There are better ways to spend your time reading or learning about geopolitics. This book serves just enough information to satisfy those who agree with its political assumptions and don’t already know a lot about geography.

My last book review about the beautiful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The Blue of Distance was my last non-fiction review, and up next is Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

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