The Bedside Geography
The Home of Mankind. By Hendrik van Loon. (Harrap. 12s. 6(L) " L'ESTRANGE has made it stranger still" was the comment in a school magazine on a new Geography published during the first decade of this century. But this is a different matter entirely from the old boredom of facts and fallacies that was geography. This van Loon geography really is a bedside book. It entertains and stimulates ; its studied naivete is delightful ; its whimsical style captivating ; it should awaken desire in a child, a desire to know, to travel, to live its geography, while to the adult it should give an under- standing of the romance and drama that lie hidden in oceans, contours and mountain peaks. It avoids the dullness of statistics without suppressing the relevant information. One cannot help learning when learning is so palatably and allusively displayed. There is, for example, no arid discussion of the Wegener hypothesis (indeed his name is not even mentioned), but the hypothesis is there all right, though it is presented as pieces of cork floating in a tub of water. If an occasional error has crept in, it is irmnaterial ; for the book is essentially an appeal to the imagination, and the van Looneys who are his enthusiasts can at least see the world as a whole, untrammelled by the absurdly irrelevant details of conven- tional textbooks.
This is an impossible book to " review " in the accepted sense of the word, just because it is so completely unconven- tional. Man holds the centre of the stage ; the author- affirms that he would rather call it "a study" of Man in search of food and shelter and leisure for himself and for his family, and an attempt to find-out the way in which Man has either adapted himself to his background or has reshaped his surroundings in order to be as comfortable and well-nourished and happy as is compatible with his own limited strength." Man comes first ; his physical environment and background next ; "the rest is given where space remains." By these canons geography becomes an interpretation, not a statement, and therefore a thousandfold more interesting. "The Atlantic Ocean," Mr. van Loon writes, "was just as wide and deep and as wet and salty before the beginning of the thirteenth century as after, but it took the human touch to make it what it is today—a bridge between the New World and the Old, the highway for the commerce between East and West."
So all sorts of matters intervene in this humanized geography, which the strictly scientific geographer, concerned with precision, projections and cartography, omits from his purview. Ireland leads Mr. van Loon to the psychology of the Irish, till he pulls himself up abruptly to ask : "Wandering again, you will say. What, if you please, has all this got to do with geography ? " " Rothing," he adds, "with the geo- graphy that restricts itself to the enumeration of mountains and rivers and cities and statistics concerning the export of Coal and the import of Woollens. But man is not merely a tummy in search of food. lie has also got a mind and the gift of imagination. And there is something unnatural about this country called Ireland." This is really the essence of his method : human latitude and longitude is for hirn as impor- tant as the vagaries of the earth's surface, and the two dovetail in together to form the pattern of civilization._ He has a happy gift of seizing on the essential factors and expressing them in a few words. Germany, foe' example, he describes as "the nation that was founded too late " : and Russia "the country whose geographical position prevented her from finding out *whether she was part of Europe or of Asia." "Rumania is "a country which has oil and a Royal Family " Denmark "an object-lesson which shows that a small country may enjoy certain advantages over large ones." His descriptions of individuals are no less apt : Leopold II, for instance, is "a mediaeval scoundrel on a constitutional throne in a modern democratic country—as strange a contradiction in terms as has been seen for a longtime,'? while his views . on current politics may be deduced from such captions as "Hungary, or what remains of her," or " the soundest of all Balkan countries, whose king bet on the wrong horse during the Great War and suffered the consequences."
Every continent and country: is pasSed under, this half- humorous, but always critical, review, and in the end we are left with the feeling that we do at last know something about
the factors which have contributed to human geography. xo scientific treatise could make us realize so vividly the inter- action of human and tellurian forces. It is the very simplicity of the narrative which has made this achievement pos.sible, aided very largely by the author's maps and drawings which are more convincing than any argument. In these three. dimensional maps Mr. van Loon has returned to the technique of the early geographers : they do not attempt accuracy, but they are dramatic and revealing. The pictures. are (shall we say ?) allegorical; they each epitomize an attitude or a Way of approach. Mr. van Loon tells his readers to make their own pictures if they wish to get to the heart of geography, and here he practises the method which he recommends. Some of them are grim, like "Oasis," others graphic, like "The Desert," others beautiful, like "The Zambezi Falls," others vividly coloured and others merely diagrammatic sketches. But few of them fail, and all stimulate the imagination. A book for children and grown-ups alike. J. H. DRIISERG.