The best geography books

7 authors have picked their favorite books about geography and why they recommend each book.

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The Discovery of France

By Graham Robb,

Book cover of The Discovery of France

Don’t be intimated by the academic-sounding title. This book just blew my mind. If you want to even begin understanding the French, you have to know where they came from. As Robb proves in this readable work, there is no better way to do this than by looking at French geography. France is a country that evolved out of surprisingly varied landscapes, ethnic origins, languages, and more. Understanding all the pieces of the puzzle, the great struggles that gathered them into a unified country, will forever change how you see the country.


Who am I?

I have been writing books about France and the French for two decades. The adventure began when I moved to Quebec in my early 20s and married a Quebecker. He became my life partner and co-author. I learned his language, immersed myself in Canada’s French-language culture and began writing articles in French. In 1999 we moved to France for three years to study the French. Three books later, we returned to Paris with our daughters to try to demystify French conversation. The result is The Bonjour Effect. I am grateful to the authors on my list for helping me refine my understanding of France, the French and their language. 


I wrote...

The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed

By Julie Barlow, Jean-Benoit Nadeau,

Book cover of The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed

What is my book about?

Why do the French start every sentence with “non”? Why do you get bad service if you don’t say “bonjour” first? Many travellers have shared the frustrations of communicating with the French, but few understand what makes the French so confounding. It’s the codes.

The Bonjour Effect unravels the mysteries of French conversation. To understand and speak French well, one must understand a set of rules that go to the heart of French culture. The Bonjour Effect takes readers beyond what the French are saying to explain what they actually mean. Through their encounters with French from all walks of life, the authors explain why, culturally and historically, conversation with the French is not about communicating or being nice. It's about being interesting. After reading The Bonjour Effect, readers who don’t speak French will be able to hold their own in French conversation. 

The Historical Atlas of World War II

By Alexander Swanston, Malcolm Swanston,

Book cover of The Historical Atlas of World War II: 170 Maps that Chart the Most Cataclysmic Event in Human History

The maps in this volume are so instructive, and it offers comprehensive information on all fronts of the war. For one lacking in geographical and military strategy knowledge, I count this book as invaluable to my research.


Who am I?

Research and writing have shown me that the war-affected baby boomers like me in tangible ways. My father-in-law helped deliver the survivors of the Bataan Death March—what a legacy! My special addiction to the WOMEN of WWII, though, probably stems from my mother, who suffered poverty and restrictions on the home front through it all. Also, my husband (a history major) and I delight in watching documentaries and accurate movies about the war and visiting as many historical sites as possible.


I wrote...

Until Then

By Gail Kittleson,

Book cover of Until Then

What is my book about?

Riding in the backs of Army trucks across North Africa, throughout the Sicily campaign, up the boot of Italy, and northward through France into Germany, Dorothy Woebbeking served as a surgical nurse with the 11th Evacuation Hospital. During World War II, US Army nurses worked and slept in tents through horrific weather, endured enemy fire, and even the disdain of their own superior officers, who believed women had no place in war. But Dorothy and her comrades persevered, and their skills and upbeat attitude made a huge difference in the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers. This is their story.

A History of America in 100 Maps

By Susan Schulten,

Book cover of A History of America in 100 Maps

An excellent example of the British Library’s History … in 100 Maps series, this book, by an expert, on the American geopolitical imagination, combines a first-rate text with instructive maps. Handsomely produced, it is good value.


Who am I?

I am a historian fascinated with maps and geography, I have produced historical atlases on the world, Britain, war, cities, naval history, fortifications, and World War Two, as well as books on geopolitics and maps. I am an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Exeter and a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and of Policy Exchange.


I wrote...

Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past

By Jeremy Black,

Book cover of Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past

What is my book about?

Historical atlases offer an understanding of the past that is invaluable to historians, not only because they convey a previous age's sense of space and distance but also because they reveal what historians and educators of those periods thought important to include or omit. This book - the first comprehensive and wide-ranging account of the historical atlas - explores the role, development, and nature of this important reference and discusses its impact on the presentation of the past.

The Eternal City

By Jessica Maier,

Book cover of The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps

This first-rate book, at once scholarly and accessible, is typical of the excellent production value of the University of Chicago Press, which is the major publisher of cartographic studies. Maier offers a fascinating reading of a good choice of maps.


Who am I?

I am a historian fascinated with maps and geography, I have produced historical atlases on the world, Britain, war, cities, naval history, fortifications, and World War Two, as well as books on geopolitics and maps. I am an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Exeter and a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and of Policy Exchange.


I wrote...

Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past

By Jeremy Black,

Book cover of Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past

What is my book about?

Historical atlases offer an understanding of the past that is invaluable to historians, not only because they convey a previous age's sense of space and distance but also because they reveal what historians and educators of those periods thought important to include or omit. This book - the first comprehensive and wide-ranging account of the historical atlas - explores the role, development, and nature of this important reference and discusses its impact on the presentation of the past.

Atlas

By Tom Harper,

Book cover of Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library

Wide-ranging, high-production values, a good balance of maps and text, and excellent value for money. Includes many different types of map not least those of fantasy worlds.


Who am I?

I am a historian fascinated with maps and geography, I have produced historical atlases on the world, Britain, war, cities, naval history, fortifications, and World War Two, as well as books on geopolitics and maps. I am an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Exeter and a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and of Policy Exchange.


I wrote...

Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past

By Jeremy Black,

Book cover of Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past

What is my book about?

Historical atlases offer an understanding of the past that is invaluable to historians, not only because they convey a previous age's sense of space and distance but also because they reveal what historians and educators of those periods thought important to include or omit. This book - the first comprehensive and wide-ranging account of the historical atlas - explores the role, development, and nature of this important reference and discusses its impact on the presentation of the past.

The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus

By Valerie Irene Jane Flint,

Book cover of The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus

This is a lapidary introduction to the stories and ideas that prompted Columbus to sail away from Europe into the Atlantic in search of a direct sea route to Asia—and that determined how he interpreted what he came across after making landfall in the Americas. In just 200 pages, Flint nimbly covers all sorts of material: Christian theories of cosmology and eschatology; medieval conceptions of geography; the travel stories of St. Brendan, Sinbad the Sailor, Sir John Mandeville, and Marco Polo; the books that Columbus read, and the notes he made in them to himself; and more. In doing so, she reanimates a fascinating landscape of the imagination.


Who am I?

I’m a writer and an editor with eclectic interests. I’ve published two books of popular history—Da Vinci's Ghost (2012), about Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name. I’ve also written extensively for national publications on such topics as the sociology of new religious movements, privacy protection in the Internet age, the Voynich manuscript, the revisionist study of the Qur’an, the revival of ancient Greek music, and alphabet reform in Azerbaijan. I’m presently a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. From 1988-1990, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen.


I wrote...

The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

By Toby Lester,

Book cover of The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

What is my book about?

For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Occasionally they wondered about what they called a "fourth part of the world," a land separated from the other three parts of the world by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of mystery and myth... until 1507, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure German humanists working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real with a map.

A year earlier, Columbus had died believing that he had sailed to Asia, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann, after reading about the Atlantic discoveries of Columbus’s contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, decided that Vespucci had reached the fabled fourth part of the world. To celebrate the achievement, Waldseemüller and Ringmann printed a huge wall map, for the first time showing the New World distinct from Asia, and in Vespucci’s honor they gave this New World a name: America. Only one copy of the map survives, discovered in 1901 in the library of a German castle, and in 2003 it was bought for the unprecedented sum of $10 million by the Library of Congress, where it is now on permanent public display.
The Fourth Part of the World tells the story of this map, which turns out to be a grand saga of geographical and intellectual discovery—one that sweeps across continents and centuries and is full of engrossing ideas, adventures, and surprises.

Atlas of the Bible

By John Rogerson,

Book cover of Atlas of the Bible

Part of my job when writing historical fiction is to know the "lay of the land." That means understanding regional maps, the geography, the climate, and the flora and fauna of the era and location of my story. I turned to this book so often that some of the pages are falling out. Beautifully illustrated with color photos, maps, and drawings, this book describes the history and main features of twelve main geographical regions in the Holy Land and connects them to major events in the Old and New Testaments. It's an accessible resource that functions more as a cultural atlas than simply as a map atlas.


Who am I?

I have been an avid reader of historical fiction since I was very young, and I love learning about the life and times of different periods of history. One might describe me as a "research junkie." My desire to know more about the everyday lives of my historical characters has taken me on many wonderful adventures, and my personal library is full of books I use for research. I write fiction, creative nonfiction, and novels. I am currently completing a new novel about a family of downwinders, people who contracted cancer from government-sanctioned radioactive fallout from the atomic bomb tests in Nevada during the 1950s and 1960s.


I wrote...

Blood of a Stone

By Jeanne Lyet Gassman,

Book cover of Blood of a Stone

What is my book about?

Set in first-century Palestine on the fringes of the Roman Empire and the Jesus movement, Blood of a Stone is a sweeping story of murder, betrayal, love, and the search for redemption. Faced with the brutality of slavery, Demetrios murders his abusive Roman master and flees to Galilee to create a new life and a new identity.

However, freedom has its price. Secrets cannot remain secret forever. When Demetrios is betrayed by a close friend, he risks everything to silence those who would enslave him again. His quest leads him to startling discoveries and dire choices, and Demetrios must answer the question we all face: Can we ever be free of our past?

The Tropics of Empire

By Nicolás Wey Gómez,

Book cover of The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies

When the story of Christopher Columbus gets told, it’s typically as a tale of his having sailed west to get quickly to the east. But in this gorgeously produced, exhaustively researched study, Nicolás Wey-Gómez argues that to understand Columbus and his story properly, you have to understand it as a story about voyages to the south. Columbus inherited a powerful set of assumptions about the nature and peoples found in southern latitudes, and it’s those assumptions, Wey-Gómez contends, that allowed Columbus and the many Europeans that followed him to the New World to justify their various colonial enterprises.


Who am I?

I’m a writer and an editor with eclectic interests. I’ve published two books of popular history—Da Vinci's Ghost (2012), about Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name. I’ve also written extensively for national publications on such topics as the sociology of new religious movements, privacy protection in the Internet age, the Voynich manuscript, the revisionist study of the Qur’an, the revival of ancient Greek music, and alphabet reform in Azerbaijan. I’m presently a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. From 1988-1990, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen.


I wrote...

The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

By Toby Lester,

Book cover of The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

What is my book about?

For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Occasionally they wondered about what they called a "fourth part of the world," a land separated from the other three parts of the world by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of mystery and myth... until 1507, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure German humanists working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real with a map.

A year earlier, Columbus had died believing that he had sailed to Asia, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann, after reading about the Atlantic discoveries of Columbus’s contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, decided that Vespucci had reached the fabled fourth part of the world. To celebrate the achievement, Waldseemüller and Ringmann printed a huge wall map, for the first time showing the New World distinct from Asia, and in Vespucci’s honor they gave this New World a name: America. Only one copy of the map survives, discovered in 1901 in the library of a German castle, and in 2003 it was bought for the unprecedented sum of $10 million by the Library of Congress, where it is now on permanent public display.
The Fourth Part of the World tells the story of this map, which turns out to be a grand saga of geographical and intellectual discovery—one that sweeps across continents and centuries and is full of engrossing ideas, adventures, and surprises.

Home Ground

By Barry Lopez (editor), Debra Gwartney (editor),

Book cover of Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape

Barry Lopez and his 40 plus contributors dive deep into the language of the land, providing colorful, literary, and sometimes opinionated definitions for more than 850 landscape terms, many of which owe their existence to geology, such as ‘a’a, erg, slickrock, and yardang. The book is an essential and timely contribution to the myriad ways that geology affects not only place but language as well. This is a book for anyone who wants to learn more about America, the nature of its landscape, and its history, and to develop a better connection to place. Or for anyone who wants to use correctly such fine terms as chickenhead, nubble, boondocks, and thank-you ma’am.

Who am I?

For the past two decades, I have written about the intersection of people and place, particularly as viewed through the lens of geology and how it influences our lives. My nine books include Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, Cairns: Messengers in Stone, and Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound. All of them have a goal of helping people develop a better connection with the natural world around them.


I wrote...

Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

By David B. Williams,

Book cover of Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

What is my book about?

Most people do not think of looking for geology from the sidewalks of a major city, but for the intrepid geologist any good rock can tell a fascinating story. All one has to do is look at building stone to find a range of rocks equal to any assembled by plate tectonics. Furthermore, building stones provide the foundation for constructing stories about cultural as well as natural history.

In my journeys around the United States and Italy recounted in Stories in Stone, I braid together natural and cultural history to reveal the untold life of building stone. Stories range from explorations of rock used by the Romans to build the Colosseum to a gas station made of petrified wood to a granite quarry that led to the first commercial railroad in the United States. By discussing history, transportation, and architecture, I hope to give readers a new way to appreciate urban geology.

Hard Road West

By Keith Heyer Meldahl,

Book cover of Hard Road West: History & Geology Along the Gold Rush Trail

A simple, yet profound idea forms the basis for geologist Keith Meldah’s first book: how did geology influence the gold rush pioneers. Weaving pioneer accounts, modern science, and field exploration, he paints a unique and compelling picture of western migration and how the vagaries of the dramatic landscape played out in both small and large ways. Although gold was what drove many of the argonauts, they soon learned that the rocky world would affect them far before they reached their hoped-for destination.

Who am I?

For the past two decades, I have written about the intersection of people and place, particularly as viewed through the lens of geology and how it influences our lives. My nine books include Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, Cairns: Messengers in Stone, and Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound. All of them have a goal of helping people develop a better connection with the natural world around them.


I wrote...

Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

By David B. Williams,

Book cover of Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

What is my book about?

Most people do not think of looking for geology from the sidewalks of a major city, but for the intrepid geologist any good rock can tell a fascinating story. All one has to do is look at building stone to find a range of rocks equal to any assembled by plate tectonics. Furthermore, building stones provide the foundation for constructing stories about cultural as well as natural history.

In my journeys around the United States and Italy recounted in Stories in Stone, I braid together natural and cultural history to reveal the untold life of building stone. Stories range from explorations of rock used by the Romans to build the Colosseum to a gas station made of petrified wood to a granite quarry that led to the first commercial railroad in the United States. By discussing history, transportation, and architecture, I hope to give readers a new way to appreciate urban geology.

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