Land and the Sweep of History in Simon Winchester’s New Book

Lee Polevoi


Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World

By Simon Winchester


446 pages


The prolific British journalist and author Simon Winchester has made a late-career specialty of writing about the kinds of things we all take more or less for granted in modern life.


These subjects range from in-depth “biographies” of both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, to the art of cartography, and most recently, the craft of precision engineering. In each case, Winchester approaches the topic with all the erudition and objectivity one could ask for in a “fresh look” at the world around us.


The trend continues with Land, his latest book, describing, as he puts it, “the rich and complex history of humankind’s relationship with our planet’s 37 billion acres of habitable land.” A very tiny part of that “habitable land” now belongs to Winchester—123 acres of forested property in Duchess County, outside New York City.



His ownership serves as a springboard for what emerges as a thorough examination of how land ownership has influenced the sweep of history. In the course of his far-reaching study, Winchester looks at demarcation of property lines in the Bronze Age, the cruel land grab from Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries, mass starvation in Stalinist Russia, and the age-old conflict over territory between Israel and Palestine.


Borders are a key factor in how land is viewed by its inhabitants. Many borders are contentious and the source of ongoing conflict. One such troubled region is the sole crossing-point between India and Pakistan. Both nations possess nuclear weapons, and neither side has particularly good feelings about the other side.


This results in a comic, but also frightening ritual that occurs every night at the border with a formalized ceremony:


“Soldiers from both sides, selected for their height and their balletic marching skills and ability to kick their legs high into the air, march fiercely toward one another, stopping fast at the painted line on the road so they are almost moustache to moustache, breathing hard and angrily into each other’s faces, while the crowds on bleachers on each side cheer lustily and, just being able to see one another, roar insults into the gloaming … [Eventually], the border falls quiet, just a line of orange lights and a million land mines and thousands of soldiers on perpetual alert, waiting for the next outbreak of unpleasantness along a line said to be even more dangerous … than any other border in the world.”



There are moments in Land where the minutiae of land ownership slows the pace of the narrative, as when Winchester explores the nuts and bolts of zoning laws, eminent domain, redlining, and the like. But this is a small complaint when measured against the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge, research, and ambition to define precisely what land means to humankind, and the lengths to which we have exploited and often destroyed this extremely valuable resource.


For readers seeking a fresh perspective on a fundamental aspect of our existence on this planet, Simon Winchester’s Land will be a rewarding reading experience.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of The Moon in Deep Winter, a novel.


 For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Metro-Goldwyn Mayer


--Pxfuel (Creative Commons)


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