The best books that will redefine your understanding of geography

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a Geography professor at DePaul University with a long-standing obsession with the world, comparing puddle shapes to countries as a small child and subsequently initiating map and flag collections that I cultivate to this day. Having lived in different parts of the UK and the USA, as well as being fortunate enough to travel further afield, I’ve relished the opportunity to explore widely and chat with the people who know their places best. I love books that alter how I look at the planet, and I am particularly intrigued by the subtle ways in which people have shaped our world—and our perceptions of it—both intentionally and inadvertently.

I wrote...

Invisible Lines: Boundaries and Belts That Define the World

By Maxim Samson,

Book cover of Invisible Lines: Boundaries and Belts That Define the World

What is my book about?

Our planet is made up of countless invisible lines that fundamentally shape our engagement with the world. Perhaps we feel "out of place" when we cross from one part of a city to another—if we choose to cross at all. Maybe we differentiate between "West" and "East" or speak of a Bible Belt or an Outback, even though no formal boundary exists. 

As the easiest shape to draw or imagine, lines help us simplify and mould our complex planet to our needs and desires, but they can also have profound, unexpected consequences. Through its carefully selected case studies, this book draws readers’ attention to the world’s unseen boundaries and invites them to see, experience, and think about their surroundings in a new, deeper way.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles

Maxim Samson Why did I love this book?

A film noir in book form, Davis’ astute, visceral, and impassioned chronicle of Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium offers a dystopian view of future urban society.

I was recommended this book by my secondary school geography teacher shortly before starting university. Although my teacher did not know it, I had been questioning whether I’d made the right choice in choosing Geography for my degree, but this book captivated me like no other and assuaged my academic concerns. 

Los Angeles is a world-famous city that means very different things to different people. Davis shows how Los Angeles is simultaneously a utopia and a dystopia, a place of gated communities and private police forces, where libraries look like fortresses and prisons, on the outside at least, resemble futuristic hotels.

Over three decades after the first edition’s publication, this book remains essential reading for anyone seeking a sobering peek into the future of urban life. 

By Mike Davis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked City of Quartz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No metropolis has been more loved or more hated. To its official boosters, "Los Angeles brings it all together." To detractors, LA is a sunlit mortuary where "you can rot without feeling it." To Mike Davis, the author of this fiercely elegant and wide-ranging work of social history, Los Angeles is both utopia and dystopia, a place where the last Joshua trees are being plowed under to make room for model communities in the desert, where the rich have hired their own police to fend off street gangs, as well as armed Beirut militias.

In City of Quartz, Davis reconstructs…

Book cover of The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World

Maxim Samson Why did I love this book?

Even prior to reading this book, I casually considered Alexander von Humboldt to be one of my geographical heroes, a workaholic as addicted to adventure as he was obsessed with advancing our understanding of the planet.

However, Wulf’s book opened my eyes not only to the sheer extent of his contributions to how we view the world, from human-induced climate change to the development of increasingly accurate and informative maps and diagrams but also to his cultural and political significance, influencing politicians and inspiring poets to continue fashioning and representing the planet as they see fit.

In placing the founder of ecology and modern environmentalism centre-stage, this engaging biography extols Humboldt’s revolutionary understanding of how the natural and human worlds are interconnected and helps us appreciate how our relationship with the planet can be scientific and emotional simultaneously. 

By Andrea Wulf,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Invention of Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'A thrilling adventure story' Bill Bryson

'Dazzling' Literary Review

'Brilliant' Sunday Express

'Extraordinary and gripping' New Scientist

'A superb biography' The Economist

'An exhilarating armchair voyage' GILES MILTON, Mail on Sunday

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist - more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast, there's a penguin, a giant squid - even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His colourful adventures read…

Book cover of Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies

Maxim Samson Why did I love this book?

I regard this book as the quintessence of a modern geography trade book, a work that compels us to examine the places around us with an increasingly critical eye.

Drawing on current geographical thinking and a rich assortment of case studies from across the globe, Bonnett demonstrates why place matters: it is how we apply meaning to the world. Accordingly, to be placelesswhether through dispossession or demolition on the ground or deletion from the mapis tantamount to not existing at all.

Part of what makes this book such a captivating read is its attention to such concerns. Our relationship with the world may be quite innocuous, characterised by innocent curiosity and a craving for excitement, but it can also assume an ugly side, where people seek to seize places only for themselves. Ultimately, what we make of the planet, mundane and remarkable all at once, is up to us.

By Alastair Bonnett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unruly Places as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A fizzingly entertaining and enlightening book' Daily Telegraph

'Mesmerising' Geographical Magazine

'A fascinating delve into uncharted, forgotten lost places. But it's not just a trivia-tastic anthology of remote destinations but a nifty piece of psycho-geography, explaining our human need for these cartographical conundrums.' Wanderlust

In a world of Google Earth, in which it is easy to believe that every discovery has been made and every adventure already had, Off the Map is a stunning testament to how mysterious our planet still is.

From forgotten enclaves to floating islands, from hidden villages to New York gutter spaces, Off the Map charts…

Book cover of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Maxim Samson Why did I love this book?

How often do we consider the people behind the objects we use every day?

This book offers an unrivalled glimpse into the lives of the female workers who manufacture many of the products we take for granted and, in so doing, provides a human face to China’s rapid development. Through her interactions and interviews, Chang illustrates how the emergence of new industrial metropolises is transforming the opportunities and aspirations of young rural women.

While she does not shy away from showing the grittier aspects of China’s colossal factories, crucially, Chang demonstrates how their workers are autonomous individuals with concerns and dreams both relatable and unfamiliar.

This stimulating read is one of my favourite texts to use with university students, raising, as it does, all sorts of questions about gender, class, culture, and individual agency, but it has much to offer a wider audience, too, not least in providing an important corrective to binary, stereotypical thinking about contemporary China.

By Leslie T. Chang,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Factory Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China.

China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta.

As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a…

Book cover of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Maxim Samson Why did I love this book?

Especially when travelling to unfamiliar places, we take for granted how easy it is to know both the exact time and our exact location, yet until just three hundred years ago, the lives of sailors and, by extension, the fates of nations relied in no small part on good fortune.

This book tells the story of how this issue was solved by an English clockmaker committed to making our world more comprehensible and navigable while pocketing a healthy financial reward in the process. As someone with a specific interest in the science and politics of invisible lines, it is perhaps inevitable that I would gravitate toward a book that elucidates the challenges in pinning down longitude, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Accessible and engaging, Sobel’s book helps unpack the intimate relationship between time and space and illustrates palpably the importance of understanding, quite literally, our place in the world.

By Dava Sobel,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Longitude as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of one man's forty-year obsession to find a solution to the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day--"the longitude problem."

Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that "the longitude problem" was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day-and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives and the increasing fortunes of nations hung on a resolution. One man, John Harrison, in…

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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…

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