I began collecting books at about age 7 and have never stopped. Today I live with around 56,000 books. So it was inevitable that this newsletter would turn to book reviews, and not just any book reviews. This lust all started with a 1950s world atlas, which I still have. I set out to build a great personal reference library, and it all started with geography, with wanting to know where I came from, where I was at, and where I was going. Along with my 6 billion or so fellow travelers!
As I have travelled the world, I am continually amazed at how little most business people and others know about geography. Americans are especially bad at this. Having two oceans and only two countries bordering us, we are more isolated than most other nations. Nevertheless, more than ever the future of our country and of ourselves rests on global interconnectedness. Geography is far more important today than it was in the 1950s when I began my quest.
Yet understanding the world around us, whether the county next door or the faraway exotic land, is not that hard. I cannot imagine trying to understand the world around me and the future without these four key books.
The first book in a geography reference shelf
Any geographical reference shelf must start with a good world atlas. The maps are beautiful and informative. I use them as fiction, imagining myself in that place and wondering what it might look like. You can spend $200+ on an atlas or you can spend $20. The finest atlases should be at least 1/3 index – more than almost any other type of book. If the atlas has a short index, it either does not have many places in it, or you cannot look them up unless you already know where they are.
I believe the two best atlas publishers today are the Oxford University Press and the National Geographic Society, although the products of the latter vary somewhat in quality and information content. Oxford is the only atlas publisher that updates annually, so you can know the very latest countries, provinces, and city landmarks.
This massive $90 (or $60 online) Oxford Atlas of the World is an exceptional value for the money. It is a work of art, packed with city maps, aerial photos, thematic maps (crops, economy, oil, weather, population, …), and the required physical (elevation) and political maps, covering every corner of the earth in substantial detail. Oxford also makes offer less complete and expensive atlases.
#1 Atlas of the World – Oxford University Press
If you do not want to spend that much money, great American atlas maker Rand McNally continues to produce the student geographer’s atlas – Goode’s Atlas. This atlas is still one of the best for thematic maps, which I believe are critical to understanding geography.
Before I leave atlases, for the United States (and other countries), nothing matches the detail of a great road atlas. The Europeans including Michelin make great ones. For the United States, it is hard to beat this classic, one of the all time best-selling American books. This is still true today, even with GPS and Google Maps! (See my blogpost on why digital maps fall short of the power of paper maps.)
True understanding, connecting the dots
Once you have the maps, so you can see the lay of the land and how places are related to each other, it is critical to understand geography more deeply. Having a good author as your guide can accelerate and ease this process. I have studied dozens of geography textbooks, and nothing comes close to the work of the very popular Harm De Blij. I know this book is pricey, but the incredible text, maps, and tables will inform and perhaps change your view of the world.
One reason I love this book is that he and his coauthors have dropped the outdated and not-very-useful idea of continents. For example, his regional analysis – which is the right way to see the world – unites the Middle East with North Africa in one cultural region. The rest of Asia is broken into more meaningful major components. The former Soviet Union is a world unto itself, neither European nor Asian, as the old geography texts would have us believe. I can spend hours and hours flipping through this book, learning new things. It is an investment in your brain, so don’t let the price stop you!
#2 Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts
Keeping up to date
With these foundations in place, it is important to keep up with the world. While the US does not change very fast, much of the “developing” or emerging world is rapidly changing and ever-surprising. Did you know Panama has perhaps the strongest economy in the western hemisphere? That lifespans are rising almost everywhere, and some African countries are doing well while others suffer? Do you know what the average income is in the country you are doing business in? Whether women have the educational opportunities that men do in the next country you are visiting? How fast is their economy growing – or shrinking?
This annual book has all the answers, up to date, on virtually every aspect of development. I would never miss an issue or consider traveling without studying it first.
#3 World Development Indicators 2014 – World Bank
A shorter, handy data book is this great pocket-sized one from The Economist magazine, great for taking on the road with you:
While we are looking at the numbers, one more item I highly recommend is The Economistmagazine’s annual “The World in 2015” which comes out the preceding December. This is cheap and invaluable, forecasting politics and economics for each major country for the year to come. This weekly magazine is also the best single magazine to read to develop a global perspective. Most US media are poor in this regard.
For the travel lover
The last of my “big four” books is also the one with the broadest appeal and it is less expensive. When this Lonely Planet book came out a few months ago, Amazon had severely under-ordered and it was out of stock. Luckily, they have it back in stock. (I also urge you to support your friendly bricks and mortar bookstores!)
This is the MOST awesome book, and makes my top ten books (of any type) of the last few years. Packed with the most important sites to visit in every country on earth, with hundreds of color photos, useable maps, and descriptions of every site, capped with a country summary. The book even lists the best books and movies to understand the country! There has not been anything this cool published since the old Pan American World Airways’ “World Guides,” now long out of print.
#4 Lonely Planet The World: A Traveller’s Guide to the Planet
Another beautiful book, covering all the countries, but without as much detail. This is more of a coffee table book than a reference book, but it is a real treat for any travel lover, also from Lonely Planet:
And if you love cities….
If you are a city lover like me, here are two great books. I believe cities are the greatest creation of mankind, and among the most interesting. Yet there are relatively few books about cities written for a general audience, not buried in academic or government jargon.
For a basic understanding, learning how cities work, and studying and comparing most of the great individual cities of the world, no other book even comes close to this outstanding textbook:
For the traveler, this is the best and most beautiful book ever published about the great cities of the world, and what makes them great to visit – ranked in order by the Lonely Planet folks!
The Cities Book: A Journey Through the Best Cities in the World
I hope this list leads you to new discoveries and new understanding. Please share your thoughts and comments here on LinkedIn.
If you would like to subscribe to my twice-monthly newsletter click here.