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Van Loon's Geography: The Story of the World…

Van Loon's Geography: The Story of the World We Live In

by Hendrik Willem Van Loon

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I read this book with a mixture of awe, disgust, and pure intellectual happiness. This book was published in 1932; it was still The Great War, not WWI, and there are constant reminders that things we take for granted (routine air travel, cell phones, satellites, the Internet, etc.) just weren’t around.

Mr. Van Loon spends the first six marvelous chapters discussing peoples of the world, geography for purposes of his book, our planet, maps, the seasons and other weather phenomena, and land masses. It’s fascinating stuff and although there are more current theories of some of what he writes about, much of it is of a sameness. He then discusses countries, or continents, or islands, or other nationalistic entities alone or in combo with wit, inventiveness, and an ability to cut to the heart of each entity he describes.

Because it was written over 80 years ago, it is rife with the prejudices, stereotypes, and assumed white-man superiority that that have mostly gone away (or at least underground); however, I have always tried to consider an author’s writings to be of her or his own times and cut some slack.

The absolute best parts of the book are his line drawings. There are perhaps one hundred – I didn’t count exactly – and they range from “Only round objects give round shadows” to “Norway” to “Look at a Map of the Arctic and This is All You See”. The drawings of countries or continents are linear and only include mountains and rivers with the occasional city, because he is mostly discussing how geography defines how land is used and how a country or region’s history is derived from what people have to work with. To a large degree he posits that geography is destiny. Invasions, agricultural and industrial pursuits, personality types, and many other actions and behaviors are explained as a result of geographical factors controlling an area.

A very interesting, curiously dated yet prescient look at our world. ( )
  karenmarie | Jan 2, 2016 |
An intriguing book for sure, "Van Loon's Geography" is at times a remarkable time capsule of its era (1932), with statements on who would want Austria in its then current form (thanks to van Loom I realised that Anchluss wasn't a big shock as there had been moves to "merge" the two nations for years), mixed with some of the most incredible broad sweeping stereotypical statements I've ever read (my favorite was how the people of Edinburgh were all intelligent, hard working types but were saddled by Glaswegians, who were all drunken layabouts).

When you mix all that with his rant about how Australian Aboriginals were the most miserable, useless people in the world, with nothing to recommend them, you get a somewhat strange result. Even more so, when, in my case, you buy a clearly bootlegged version in some dodgy bookshop in China with the odd bizarre spelling mistake (and without the sketches van Loom refers to throughout the book).

If nothing else, this book is almost the ultimate curio. ( )
  MiaCulpa | Jul 10, 2014 |
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