A Brief Book Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

I first heard of this book in my research to find a good introductory book to the world of global geography. I have to say while there were many things I really liked about this book there were also some areas where I really felt the narrative fell short and the story was not as developed as it could have been. First I’ll talk about what I liked and then I’ll dive deeper into those things I felt lacked appeal.

There were a bunch of things I really liked about this book. I really liked the way Marshall segmented the book into the ten maps/regions of the world. I felt like this made the book more digestible to a reader that could otherwise be extremely overwhelmed by the vastness of global geography like myself. I also really liked the real-life examples Marshall brought to the table from his time being a reporter on the ground during some of the world’s biggest conflicts. I felt this added not only validity to his explanations but it humanized them from just being locations on a paper map to being real-life places. The argument itself that geography and physical makeups of our world like terrain, mountains, access to water, etc is something I fully heartedly agree is ignored way too much in our discussions of world history and politics, and for that I’m grateful his tale breaks free from that lack of intersectionality. The description of real, tangible, land boundaries on the ground matter and were extraordinary to read about. I also found his explanations of relationships between countries: allies, enemies, or neutrality, to be clear and concise, something that is lacking in a lot of other similar sources. These are the things that I really like about the text.

The main issue I had with the texts was the lack of narrative surrounding the concepts of colonialism and imperialism. Perhaps it is because I read this book right after I read. The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets by Jason Hickel, but this book for me lacked historical significance in those senses. Oftentimes he would talk about the lack of success in a country and not even reference those legacies. Not to mention the ways in which he defined success were not explained thoroughly, and routed in eurocentrism. I found this particularly clear in his descriptions of Pakistan, Latin America, and Palestine. He was extremely harsh when it came to Pakistan and did not spend nearly enough time examining the long and deadly history of English imperialism. In Latin America he focused on issues like corruption in the government and didn’t really talk enough about European imperialization and then US colonization and interjection into Latin American elections. For me, these are things that are crucial in understanding the historical and geographical makeup of Latin American countries and I felt like he skimmed out on some of the context he could have given. In his discussion of Palestine while he did not claim a position obviously, he did not mention any numbers or historical significance in the lives lost and instead stuck to just descriptions of the land. I feel that only seeing geography as numbers and resources on a piece of land is ignorant, after all, it is people that write the narratives of those places. Especially in a conflict like Palestine/Israel where the numbers are so contrasting and telling.

These are the issues I had with this book. I definitely think I learned a lot while reading it, and I’m very appreciative towards that. I think that if he had taken more time to explain the implications and long lasting effects of things like colonialism, imperialization, and interference in foreign elections, it would have been a smoother and clearer picture. While he took the time to give historical context to some things, he didn’t for others, which I found unfair and not sincere to the actual reality of global geography.

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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