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A world map from 1507 world map by cartographer Martin Waldseemuller is pictured in this handout image from the Library of Congress.

5 forgotten books about geography and place to read now

Our September pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This,” is “Earning the Rockies” by Robert D. Kaplan. Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here and see all the previous book club selections here.

Courtesy Random House

Robert Kaplan said he knew the mixing of genres in “Earning the Rockies” ran the risk of alienating some readers. Parts of the book read like a travelogue, while others delve into foreign policy and geopolitics. But that was intentional, he told the PBS NewsHour:

“I fiercely believe that without a deep appreciation of landscape and geography, all foreign policy discussions run the risk of unreal abstraction. But without an appreciation of those same foreign policy discussions, geography and landscape lose some of their meaning.”

For role models for “Earning the Rockies,” Kaplan read historians and travelers who explored both the landscape and politics, and the ways they intertwine. Here are five of his favorite writers whose books provide a rich sense of place:


1. John Gunther’s post-World War II “Inside” books

“Inside USA,” “Inside Africa,” “Inside Europe,” and “Inside Latin America” are dated but also timeless, as they are the apex of the generalist’s style, encompassing every facet of these places, missing from the deep-dive specialist writing of today that has its own merits, but has a much narrower focus.

2. Paul Theroux’s “The Last Train to Zona Verde”

Paul Theroux is the greatest American travel writer, politically incorrect yet deeply humane always. There is an unmatched clarity and elegance to most of his books. A recent book of his, “The Last Train to Zona Verde,” is about a trip through Africa that he aborts half-way. The reason he aborts it is touching and brutally honest. How many writers will tell readers about a failed journey?

3. Bernard DeVoto’s trilogy on the American West

I write an entire chapter on Bernard DeVoto in “Earning the Rockies.” Suffice it to say that his trilogy on the American West (“Across the Wide Missouri,” “The Year of Decision 1846,” and “The Course of Empire”), critically acclaimed in the 1940s and 1950s, provides a vivid, colorful, description what it was really like to settle inhospitable desert tracks that is unavailable today. He was that rare breed, a nationalist who was also fiercely liberal and believed in an internationalist foreign policy.

4. Wallace Stegner’s “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian”

It is hard to find more beautiful travel writing anywhere, encased in a riveting, analytical story about the need to observe environmental limits in the water-starved West — years ahead of its time.

"The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretative History of Russian Culture" by James H. Billington. Credit: Vintage

5. James Billington’s “The Icon and the Axe”

It’s a moving, intricate study of the deep, unspoken forces that help determine Russian culture, and thus influence its politics. How communalism — and thus a strong, oppressive state — is written into the landscape itself. How the Mongols provided Eastern Orthodoxy with a common enemy; how the icon exemplifies the ultimate communal authority.

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