Subtitled "How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World" I guess I was hoping for something like Guns, Germs, & Steel with a focus on the US and History.
Instead, we get Kaplan pontificating from his armchair about all sorts of things, usually about how people are in the middle of the country are fatties.
Strange that I should say 'from his armchair' since part of the writing of the book involved him travelling from coast to coast, to experience things at ground level. But he didn't seem to learn anything at all. As I wrote in the bookclub:
I'm just disappointed that it's a voyage of pontification rather than a voyage of discovery. Since he's an established thinker, he's allowed to have his own ideas, but he seems so incurious about actually finding anything out about the people he passes by. He could have written this book from his armchair given how little he seems to learn from his travels. The trip is superfluous except to confirm his preexisting biases.
How I imagine his state of mind on the trip:
Gotta pee, but I have to get to Mt. Rushmore by Wednesday. Just gonna stop here to pee, no chit chat. OMG, it smells like deep fryer oil. Jeez, those people are fat. Pretty much what I expected.
Hey that lady's dandling a baby on her knee! And that guy has a VFW hat. That's the kind of local color that will really make this book sing. Back to the road!
Once he arrives in San Diego, he gets a boner looking at the Navy fleet, and then segues into the last third of the book, which is an entirely separate pontification on the US exerting its power in the world.
One of Kaplan's few attempts to actually talk about how geography affects history is to note correctly that once the Native Americans had been steamrollered out of the way, America is quite a safe place, geographically. Oceans on two sides, and a long border with polite people on the other side to the North. Kaplan does worry quite a bit about the teeming hordes of brown people to the south, but still pretty safe. And this safety allows us to smite evil-doers here and there around the world, spreading peace and joy and democracy. And Kaplan seems to be quite eager for America to bestow these militant blessings on others around the world.
Kind of creepily, he seems to think of this as some way of atoning for the atrocities committed against the Native Americans. Someone else in the bookclub pointed out a sentence that begins "Manifest destiny may have been raw and cruel and rapacious, but..."
Sorta like 90% of sentences that start, "I'm not racist/sexist, but..."
While I don't entirely disagree with Kaplan's thesis that America is relatively safe and therefore has the power to potentially do good in the world, I don't share his conviction that we automatically succeed in doing good whenever we flex our military.
Despite being mean-spirited and wrong-headed, Kaplan also found time to be profoundly confusing instead of profound.
"The world itself has now become America’s frontier. And that has been both a blessing and a scourge. Omaha’s spatial arrangement offers a disturbing, almost subconscious explanation for America’s imperial ambition."
On the plus side, I learned that Pittsburgh is named after Pitt the Elder, and Zion National Park was originally named Mukuntuweap.