Off the Shelf: Prisoners of Geography

Do you sometimes feel like there’s more to the story than you’re getting?

As I mentioned, I recently re-watched The Hobbit movie. There’s a scene in volume 1, right at the tail end of the Gollum scene, where Bilbo is scrambling for his life, and he tries to squeeze through a crack in the wall and it’s just a little too tight, and all the buttons get stripped off his waistcoat. It’s a beautifully shot scene with golden buttons bouncing in slow motion, twinkling in the light. But it makes the casual viewer – the one who hasn’t read the book – wonder why it was given such significance in the movie. Who cares if his buttons get ripped off? And I agree. They should have cut the scene. It’s a remnant of the book that doesn’t make sense in the movie.

In the book, when Gollum finds his ring is missing and deduces that is what Bilbo had in his pocket, he assumes that Bilbo knows the way out of the caves and came there just to steal the ring. He dashes off through the caves with Bilbo in hot pursuit. As they approach the surface, Gollum crouches behind a bolder to peer into next room in the cave – the “back door” as the goblins call it – a crack that they can block with a huge stone. Bilbo is so close that he can see a sliver of daylight from outside that pierces the dark of the room, and the goblin guards that are hanging about guarding the exit in case the dwarves, who have just escaped, return. After deciding not to kill Gollum, Bilbo leaps over him, dodges the guards, and breaks for freedom. He still has the ring on and is invisible but he doesn’t realize that the sun will cast his shadow on the floor. The guards see it and rush to close off the exit; Bilbo escapes, but the closing door strips off his buttons.

The buttons make complete sense in the context of the book but the way that Jackson rewrote the movie strips them of their significance.

That’s how I sometimes feel about the news.

Why does Russia care about the Crimea, anyway?

What is this “belt and suspenders” thing China is doing and why should we care if build bridges and roads in a bunch of little countries?

Why didn’t Pakistan turn over Osama Bin Laden when he was hiding there?

Over the holidays, I read Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography and suddenly the buttons make sense.

I couldn’t discern a domestic political bias in this book — although there is definitely a pro-U.S. bias — and with every page I read, I realized the significance of little things that have been happening in U.S. Foreign Policy recently – so much so, that I had to check the copyright on the book to see that, yes, it was published in 2015… It is prescient, like in 2000 when the whole hanging chad story broke, something déjà vu started nagging at me, until I suddenly remembered that I had read about it in a book many years ago by Jonathan Vankin (conspiracy theory collector extraordinaire); I went back and read it again and, yep, there it was, the whole hanging chad expose, revealed long before the election.

That’s what I feel like now. Only the other way around. It seems like every story in this book is tied to something we

So if you want backstory on why it’s a big deal when the U.S. threatens to pull troops out of South Korea or Japan or Syria, why China cares about Tibet or North Korea, or why Russia really invaded Afghanistan, you’ll enjoy this book.

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