books, Political Writing, Reading

“Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall

“The land on which we live has always shaped us. It has shaped the wars, the power, politics and social development of the peoples that now inhabit nearly every part of the earth. Technology may seem to overcome the distances between us in both mental and physical space, but it is easy to forget that the land where we live, work, and raise our children is hugely important and that the choices of those who lead the seven billion inhabitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lakes, and seas that constrain us all – as they always have.”


In “Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World”, Tim Marshall makes the well argued case that one of the most important and least regarded forces dictating the course of our lives is geography. Geopolitics isn’t a subject about which I have spent much time mulling, though both history and cartography have always piqued my curiosity. In short order, Marshall works to correct that lack, to begin to lift the veil of ignorance and assumption under which many of us hide. Through 10 well-researched and well-argued chapters, Marshall clearly demonstrates the inescapable impact geography has on civilizations, cultures, and politics. His points are clear and deceptively simple and I, for one, was thrilled to be schooled by him.

There were many moments throughout “Prisoners” in which the specter of today’s world was chillingly apparent. Writing before 2015, Marshall had his finger on the pulse of the world and the anti-immigrant, nationalist waves that were soon to sweep frighteningly and efficiently through so many western countries.

“Prejudice against immigrants always rises during times of economic recession such as recently suffered in Europe, and the effects have ben seen across the continent and have resulted in the rise of right-wing political parties, all of which militate against pan-nationalism and thus weaken the fabric of the EU.”

Again, this book predates and predicts the Brexit and Trump horrors of 2016.

Marshall similarly offers the brilliant and important reminder not just that much of today’s United States was once Mexico, but that this territory was infiltrated and occupied by waves of immigrants explicitly encouraged by officials in Washington, DC in an effort to outnumber and eventually outlast the area’s original inhabitants.

Though his topic is inherently political – that is, in fact, the very crux of his argument – Marshall is neither propagandizing nor pontificating. His points are often extraordinarily objective, his focus on understanding the importance and implications of geopolitics rather than arguing any particular political or philosophical point of view.

“[W]e have neither conquered our own geography yet nor our propensity to compete for it. Geography has always been a prison of sorts – one that defines what a nation is or can be, and one from which our world leaders have often struggled to break free.”

“Prisoners of Geography” was a stretch out of my comfortable reading zone and the perfect literal and literary start to my month of exploring the world through the treasures of my local library.

6 thoughts on ““Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall”

  1. Sounds fascinating! My kids wanted me to buy them a globe the other day, in the bookstore. I said no because our was like $100. Maybe I should reconsider, if geography is that important 😀


    1. Political but not partisan, is perhaps what I mean? He discusses the politics but does not present arguments for or against (for the most part) particular movements.


      1. Sorry I wasnt very clear Joslyn – no issue with your choice of vocab at all.I was just reflecting that country borders – and hence maps – are more to do with politics than say natural edges between one place and another.


      2. That’s what I found so interesting about the book. He goes into how the natural features often dictate a nation’s borders, behaviors, successes, failures. There is a particularly interesting look at how Africa’s lack of interconnected, navigable rivers and natural harbors has prevented the spread of development and technology seen in the more interconnected western world. It looks at insularity and the challenges of governing from a different angle than I’d seen before.

        Liked by 1 person

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