It’s been a bumper year for geography-related books, with everything from climate crisis to geopolitics to global histories making the grade. What follows is a selection of titles from 2019 that we deem indispensable for anyone looking for a great read during the holiday season.
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BABEL: Around the World in 20 Languages by Gaston Dorren
Of the six-and-a-half thousand languages still alive in the world today, Limburgish linguist Gaston Dorren estimates that a working knowledge of the 20 biggest ‘lingua francas’ would enable us to converse with half the global population in their mother tongues. That number pushes up to 75 per cent if you allow for second-language speakers; and 90 per cent if you include all nations that use one or more of them in central government.
In Babel, each digestible chapter begins with a cheat sheet on each of the 20 languages, including things such as what each language calls itself, where it comes from, its script, loanwords and other tidbits. Each one then continues with a case study of a particular linguistic feature: Korean and sound symbolism; Punjabi and intonation; Swahili and ‘Africa’s nonchalant multilingualism’. Addressing the interested layman, Dorren has done a great job of condensing much unreadably serious scholarship into plain, exciting, English.
SURVEILLANCE VALLEY: The Secret Military History of the Internet by Yasha Levine
You are being watched. That’s the message investigative journalist Yasha Levine wants to convey. And, as he is about to demonstrate, you really shouldn’t be surprised.
By taking us on a history lesson of the internet and the people responsible for its creation, from its genesis during the Vietnam War via a military body called ARPA, to the use of the ARPANET by the US state in the 1960s and 1970s to share data on political protestors and civil rights campaigners, Levine reveals that the internet was developed by the military, for military purposes. Surveillance, he says, was ‘baked in from the very beginning’.
Surveillance Valley is a thorough telling of the internet story, though limited in scope by its focus on the US alone. While it is not a comforting or a light read, it is one that feels necessary in the current age. Though Levine attempts a hopeful ending, it is his insistence that ‘there is no escape’ that lingers longest, as he no doubt intended.
OIL, POWER AND WAR: A Dark History by Matthieu Auzanneau
In Oil, Power and War all the obvious points are made. Over the past couple of centuries, the exploitation and competition for oil has defined political and economic policy around the world. Borders have been drawn between nations, wars have been fought, and so on, and so on. But the wonderful thing about this book is the detail. We learn all about the early 19th century, when the region around Baku was the focus of every oil-minded person’s attention, and then the first American oil-rushes in, of all places, the pretty woods and hilly landscapes of Pennsylvania. Companies emerged, rivalries developed.
Come the 20th century it was prized by communist and fascist alike and, over a lengthier time-scale, it prodded the Western powers to carve up various parts of the world. And so, as the later parts of Auzanneau’s book reveal, things continued. US interest in oil is no secret but, in these pages, it is framed in a rather alarming way. Every president is brought to account and, while Auzanneau sometimes tends towards the conspiratorial (name an event and oil is apparently behind it), he makes a compelling case.
‘By its nature and by excelling,’ he writes, ‘humankind may have evolved to maximise energy consumption at the price of a critical expansion of chaos in the world.’ This is old, but still urgent news delivered with both passion and poise by an excellent writer.
THERE IS NO PLANET B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Year by Mike Berners-Lee
How bad are fossil fuels? What’s the carbon footprint of agriculture? How can we sort out urban transport? If only someone could answer these and even more daunting questions about protecting the planet, perhaps this complicated subject might feel a little more manageable. Thankfully, sustainability consultant Mike Berners-Lee has written a book doing exactly that.
From growing food to car travel, ocean acidification to carbon taxes, he tackles everything from the simplest to the most complex issues revolving around climate change and other anthropogenic environmental challenges with basic facts and straightforward language. Is nuclear nasty? Is local food best? Should I fly? Yes, sometimes, and it depends, says Berners-Lee. When the answer is ambiguous, he says so, instead of pushing the reader towards a neat and tidy answer where one doesn’t exist.
Berners-Lee clearly illustrates how many external factors there are to consider, how many hundreds and thousands of plates we have to keep spinning, to solve just one problem without making others even worse. As he puts in his title, these are the ‘make or break years’, and with so many issues now competing for attention (not to mention interested parties keen to interfere with our perceptions, a topic he is hardly able to get into) the challenge is immense.
THE FUTURE IS ASIAN: Global Order in the 21st Century by Parag Khanna
A controversal but compelling read. ‘Americans and Europeans see walls going up, but across Asia they are coming down,’ writes Parag Khanna. ‘Rather than being backward-looking, navel-gazing, and pessimistic, billions of Asians are forward-looking, outward-oriented, and optimistic.’ Khanna is prone to sweeping statements like this; vague, but also hard to disagree with. Asia’s rapid acceleration towards the front of the ‘global order’ has been perhaps the dominant trend of this century to date. Whatever other criticisms might justifiably be levied at this book, it’s hard not to concur with this.
Khanna’s style of communication often matches the subjects he chooses to espouse, and this book is no exception. His ferocious regurgitating of facts is undeniably engaging, although there’s an ongoing uncomfortable feeling regarding what seems to be a fairly linear view on the world, as though each country is at a different stage of prosperity along the exact same path. Khanna could easily be painted as the embodiment of the jet-setting ‘elite’ we’ve all been encouraged to revolt against in recent years. While this would be a caricature, he does himself no favours when he talks blindly about the benefits of free trade deals and globalised capitalism as if the past ten years never happened, as though there wasn’t a rising backlash against this exact mindset.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that he has hit on a significant and noteworthy global shift. ‘The time has come to approach Asian dynamics from the inside out,’ he writes. ‘Westerners must be placed... in the uncomfortable position of imagining what it’s like when about five billion Asians don’t care what they think and they have to prove their relevance to Asians rather than the reverse.’ Like it or not, it’s hard to oppose the idea that the future truly is Asian.
UNDERLAND: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
Underland is an epic, perspective-shifting exploration of the world beneath our feet. It cuts paths through science, geography, anthropology, poetry, myth and experience. We are pulled underneath Paris, Arctic ice, forest floors; into deep caves and underground rivers; ancient funeral chambers; even to underground research stations that look into space. Macfarlane’s earlier books recount journeys along old ways, in wild places and up mountains. In Underland he shows us, paradoxically, that ‘darkness might be a medium of vision’ too. ‘Force yourself to see more deeply,’ he urges. Underland helps us see new things without being worthy or dry.
Macfarlane’s thoughtful, iridescent style means the book’s cold realities catch you by surprise – ‘Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.’ These facts balance the luminosity that surrounds them. Other facts are more peculiar: some rock is tidal and reacts to the pull of the moon. There are creatures that live in deep, lightless underground rivers. These findings feel like exotic treasures – or more suited to alien worlds.
Underland is a journey; a witness; an invitation not just to protect our strange and life-giving Earth but to be awed by it.
FALTER: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
In 1978, James F Black, one of Exxon’s senior scientists, told a group of company executives that by doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we would increase average global temperatures by two to three degrees Celsius. He had already informed the same executives of the world’s largest oil company that there is a ‘general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.’ That secret internal briefing was circulated to the highest levels of the company more than ten years before the issues of climate change were widely understood. One of the first to alert the general public was Bill McKibben in his groundbreaking book The End Of Nature, which became a global best-seller.
Thirty years and dozens of books and decades of campaigning later, McKibben’s latest broadside is set to resonate equally powerfully. It is his straightforward exposition of the challenges we face and our failures in the past decades to confront the glaringly obvious and physically immutable results of pumping more and more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, that sees the book at its best.
Falter’s urgent anger and shocking revelations make it a key read for today.
THE EASTERNMOST HOUSE by Juliet Blaxland
For a few years in the middle of this decade, Juliet Blaxland lived in the Easternmost House of the Easternmost village in England. And very possibly she’s still there, but not for long… The house ‘sits’ on a crumbling cliff top in Suffolk, a soft landscape that is tumbling down into the sea at a rate of around one metre a year. The church was taken in the 1600s and two seaward cottages, and a couple of outbuildings were lost in the past ten years, leaving their home now just 25 paces from the edge.
For a year she details the highlights of village life – the courgettes as sleek and plump as dachshunds; the umpire at the local cricket match wearing a white coat on loan from the poultry farmer; the driftwood camp fire made aromatic by the addition of rosemary and tamarind branches; and the chemists that all ‘runned out’ [as they say in Suffolk] of citric acid during the elderflower-cordial making crisis/season.
But nothing can keep the water at bay. The North Sea won’t stop until it hits the Pennines writes Blaxland towards the end of the book when the tone turns more contemplative and musing. In a couple of hundred years most of Suffolk and Norfolk will be underwater.
A SAVAGE DREAMLAND: Journeys in Burma by David Eimer
Through his journey’s around Burma, David Eimer paints a vivid portrait of a complex country that’s often more savage than dreamland. Using Yangon as a base, his story begins in the rickety and dirty streets of that town, once treated by the British as an important trading post, but now desperately in need of renovation. From there he takes extended trips, all the way to the dying island civilisations in the far south; to the bizarrely empty capital city of Napyidaw; and to numerous rural towns and villages in the north, east and west of the country, many home to a minority ethnic group fighting for the right to self-govern.
Though there is little to rejoice about on this journey, there is a great deal of life. With the exacting eye of the journalist, Eimer focuses on the lives of normal people. Demonstrating a remarkable fortitude he enters forbidden towns and crosses forbidden borders. Eimer makes a number of surreptitious journeys to meet Rohingya communities trapped within small towns in Rakhine State, their situation desperate. Throughout all of these stories, the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi weighs heavily – the general picture not one of outward hostility but certainly not one of praise.
Though sometimes Eimer’s stories are so strange they almost seem funny, the harsh result is ever present as Eimer confronts a country that has been catastrophically mismanaged. The real tragedy is that he can offer little hope that things will change.
ISLAMIC EMPIRES by Justin Marozzi
From Umayyad Damascus, the Muslims’ first great capital, to Abbasid Baghdad, the ‘pre-eminent city on Earth’ for almost 500 years, while London and Paris were little better than provincial towns; from Cordoba, the ‘ornament of the world’, to Timur’s Samarkand, ‘Pearl of the East’; from Jerusalem, ground zero for so much of the world’s religious strife, to Dubai, likewise for so much dizzying commercialism; Shiite Isfahan, bibliophile Fez, Saladin’s Cairo, beleaguered Constantinople (‘a bone in the throat of Allah’), piratical Tripoli, proto-Mughal Kabul, glamorous Beirut… Islamic Empires is a seemingly boundless trove of intellectual, architectural, and actual treasures, as a succession of world-changing rulers shifted the focus of the Muslim world from east to west, north and south, butting up against the consciousnesses of surrounding domains and cultures, each city-chapter exemplifying the Islamosphere and to some extent the changing world around it, century by century.
Marozzi, a Fellow and former Trustee of the RGS-IBG, writes colourful, narrative history of the finest kind: pacey, crimson, and with all the references left until the end. The whole book is, as he says of 9th century Baghdad, ‘a kaleidoscope of bloodshed and conquest, pilgrimage and procreation, science and scholarship, [and] palatial building.’ The author’s abiding theme is that the mark of every successful Islamic empire and/or its capital was diversity and tolerance. Time and again the adjectives used to describe these empires at their peak are ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘liberalising’, ‘pluralist’, ‘outward-looking’, ‘multicultural’, ‘polyglot’. But for every story of ‘intellects roving freely and widely’, there are still two massacres. And then comes the crash. ‘A thousand years ago, Islamic civilisation bestrode the world,’ writes Marozzi. But Islamic Empires ends, of course, with a civilisation once again plunged into and laid waste by fitna – the Arabic term for conflict, civil discord, and division.
NOVACENE: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence by James Lovelock
James Lovelock is one hundred years old. Yet he remains at the sharpest of cutting edges regarding deep, existential questions about our planet, indeed, about the entire ‘cosmos’ (as he terms the universe). Nearly 50 years ago, as chief instigator of the Gaia hypothesis – which stipulates that the Earth is essentially a self-regulating organism – he once upturned a major scientific consensus. Novacene is evidence that becoming a centenarian is no barrier to continuing such a disruptive practice.
While the scientific community squabbles over whether or not the Anthropocene is a real thing, and if so, when exactly it began, Lovelock argues that this debate is old news. In his mind, we’ve been in the Anthropocene for roughly 300 years, and, much more importantly, he believes we are soon to leave it for an entirely new geological era. This he terms the Novacene: the age of hyperintelligence.
It is truly a treat to read Lovelock. He remains an excellent communicator, witty and concise in his teachings, and capable of dropping facts that are so pivotal to the topics he discusses, you find yourself in shock that you could ever have been so ignorant as to believe otherwise. Brief anecdotes are immensely engaging, everything from burning his own skin with copper rods to test the limits of cell regeneration, to the revelation that he once held an infant Stephen Hawking in his arms. His polymathic knowledge of diverse disciplines allows him to speak with confidence right across the scientific spectrum, and his advancing years ensures he has the historical credibility to back up his somewhat controversial provocations.
As the world grapples with the radical implications of the Anthropocene, it would certainly be wise to spend a few moments also considering what comes next. The Novacene might well be it.
PRAVDA HA HA: True Travels To The End Of Europe by Rory MacLean
In returning, nearly 30 years on, to the territories he last explored in his 1992 travelogue Stalin’s Nose, Rory MacLean sheds some bleak light on the manoeuvres of post-Soviet Russia and populist, post-truth Europe in the decades since the Wall came down – but, as we might expect given his book’s ironical title and subtitle, he plays his own curious games with truth and fiction.
Putin and his Russia are at the heart of Pravda Ha Ha, blackly symbolic of untruth, propaganda, Newspeak, dezinformatsiya, a ‘troll state’ weaponising its teeming bot farms to polarise and destabilise, poisoning the global discourse. ‘At the start of the 21st century,’ MacLean writes, ‘many Russians – and then many Westerners – lost their appetite for the truth. Lies became the glue that held people together.’
This is a deeply macho book, full of large men bellowing about black markets and the Russian soul over glasses of vodka, in steam rooms, at oil drum barbecues, through mouthfuls of meat. Women are often ‘petite’, and totter on high heels; of Nina Shtanski, foreign minister in the shadow state of Transnistria, MacLean writes: ‘Male diplomats from Brussels, Geneva and London had queued up to stare at her across the ministry’s broad boardroom table.’
The picture presented is by turns fascinating and chilling, as a chronically insecure Russia rehearses war games in the Baltic, entrepreneurs on the post-Soviet fringe hawk dismantled nuclear subs and looted Caesium-137 to the highest bidder, and the states in Putin’s firing line – Ukraine, Estonia, et al – brace for conflict (‘We do not kid ourselves,’ says a former Estonian defence attaché. ‘We know war is coming’). These hard realities butt through the storyteller’s surface gloss, impossible to ignore, even as again and again MacLean and his interlocutors rehash the maxim of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s O’Brien, given as the book’s epigraph: ‘Reality is not external … Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth.’
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