Every year that goes by, it becomes more and more important to understand the bigger world we live in. When I was a kid, it was more a matter of choice whether I had a clue about India or Brazil or China. Today it’s a necessity. If you just let your nose follow what you see in the papers and hear on radio and television, you won’t learn much about the world beyond a pretty short list of “hot topic” countries. More importantly, you may not get a well-rounded grasp of the regions of the world, the connections between countries, and how it all fits together. As is usually the case, the mortar that holds the bricks together is at least as important, maybe more important, than the bricks themselves. True understanding comes from knowing as much about relationships and linkages as you do about the components.
The first book to have handy, in order to grasp the world, is a great world atlas. Atlases were the first books I fell in love with, before I was even 10 years old, and today make up one of the biggest parts of my library. But you don’t have to own thousands like I do; one or two will meet most of your needs. In other posts I will talk at length about atlases.
The next book on my “global understanding shelf” is a book which goes beyond maps alone. I urge everyone to always have at hand a copy of Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts, by Harm de Blij and Peter Muller (13th edition, 2008, Wiley). There are a multitude of geography books and texts out there, including gazetteers (alphabetical encyclopedias of places), but I rate none as highly as this book.
Understand, this is a geography textbook. You might go crazy – or already be crazy – if you plan on sitting down and reading it cover to cover. But anytime you want to know more about a country, this is the first book to turn to. I find it a joy to just browse through, giving myself the freedom to flip from country to country, from continent to continent. The book combines data, text, and maps in a powerful way.
One reason I prefer this text over the others I have used is its regional approach. Most of us grew up learning geography divided into the classic continents – concepts like Africa, Asia, and Europe. But if you define a continent as a large land mass surrounded (or almost entirely surrounded) by water, it doesn’t take much time to look at a map and see that Europe is not really a continent, but a peninsula on the giant land mass “Eurasia.” So these definitions never were very consistent. More importantly, they have become culturally less relevant. Is Russia east of the Ural Mountains really Asia and Russia west of the Urals really Europe? Is Asia really one big similar whole? Does morocco have more in common with “fellow African” nation South Africa or with the Islamic nations of the Middle East?
De Blij and Muller create their own new organization of the world, resulting in more appropriate groupings – they call them “realms.” These realms include the Middle East (“Southwest Asia”) and North Africa as one realm, North America, Middle America, South America, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Russia is a separate realm, as it should be. These giant realms are in turn divided into regions, such as Mediterranean Europe, French Canada, and the American South. This is geography as it should be understood, fully reflecting the economic and cultural realities of where we live and why we live there, where are our trading and cultural connections, and why.
An example of the payoff is the way cities are treated. In many geography textbooks, they would be relegated to a chapter on “urbanization,” which might contain a list of the biggest cities on earth before going to the next topic. But, as I lover of great cities, I know that you cannot get your mind around a city outside its national and regional context. Rio is a Brazilian city above all else, Chicago an American one, and Paris French. In this book, profiles of key cities are included in the regions where they belong.
Even in a 600+ page book, the treatment of each nation is necessarily short, especially the smaller countries. But there’s enough information to begin your understanding. And on a full region or realm, you will find plenty of text – Russia covers 44 pages, China 36. I have other books that give each place roughly equal treatment, perhaps two pages per nation. There are times this is a good way to gather data, especially when comparing two or more nations on the same measure. But to get the best and most balanced world view, De Blij and Muller deliver.
Some may be intimidated by a textbook – where does one begin? I suggest that, as soon as you get this book, you flip through it page by page and just look at the maps, pictures, and illustrations. I count about 222 maps and figures, and they are excellent. I cannot think of any book I own with better and more comprehensive maps, shy of a great atlas where the whole book consists entirely of maps.
Table G-1 at the front of the book gives population, demographic, and economic information for each nation and realm – I refer to this table repeatedly throughout the year. And a glossary and full index conclude the book. The edition I have provides a link to even more online information.
I feel required to remind you that this is a textbook, which means it is expensive by trade book (regular bookstore book) standards. In a world where few books except art books rise above $30 or $35, you may swallow hard before you part with $75-125 for a book, the going range for most textbooks. But don’t you pay that much for one night in an unspectacular hotel? Or for two video games? This book, which appears to be updated about every two years, will give you at least two years of more complete understanding of the world around you, it will add a great deal of flesh to anything you hear or see on television or read about elsewhere, and it will put it all in a broader geographical and cultural context. If you ask me, it’s a bargain!