‘ “But what,” as Alice might have asked, “is the use of Geography without a little Travelling?” ‘, Van Loon concluded in his Geography: A Story of the World (1937). Van Loon was a prolific writer, most reputedly known for his Story of Mankind that won the first Newbery Medal – an award for distinguished book written for children. Full of humanity and compassion, his works provided a rich source of knowledge for children and adults alike.
Starting in Europe, Van Loon first brought us to Greece, ‘the rocky promontory of the Eastern Mediterranean which acted as the connecting link between the Old Asia and the New Europe’ , then travelled to the Mediterranean Italy and Continental Spain, France and Germany, passed through Great Britain and finally finished at the Scandinavian Finland.
On Asia, he said it ‘gave us the fundamentals upon which we have constructed the entire fabric of civilization’. Yet sadly, at the time of writing, the Republic of China has ‘tried too late to catch up with the procession’. He continued ‘But may the good Lord have mercy upon us if she ever does for oh, what a bill we shall then have to pay! What a bill!’ – a strangely prophetic note to the modern but unfortunately Communist China.
He went on and described Africa as ‘the continent of contradictions and contrasts’ that has both Lake Victoria and the Sahara Desert while Australia as a ‘step – child of nature’ with unfortunate climate and no worthy rivers leading to the sea.
My edition has 536 pages but it’s written in such a simple language and with such clarity that I wonder why it was not given as textbook in my school. He has even described the formation of the crust of the earth just like ‘handkerchiefs’ :
‘ In order to get at least a vague idea of what is really happening all around us, take a dozen clean handkerchiefs and spread them out flat on the table, one on top of the other. Then push all six together by moving your hands very slowly towards each other. You will get a pile of curiously wrinkled linen with mountains and valleys and folds and counter – folds all over it and that pile of curiously wrinkled linen will bear a very resemblance to the crust of he earth’
With the keen awareness of the human overexploitation against the Mother Nature, he urged us to protect the environment and warned us, as early as 1937, that:
‘WE ARE ALL FELLOW – PASSENGERS ON THE SAME PLANET AND WE ARE ALL OF US EQUALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS HAPPINESS AND WELL – BEING OF THE WORLD IN WHICH WE HAPPEN TO LIVE’
Nevertheless, in many areas, his optimism is unmistakeable. After telling us how Greece has suffered a history of humiliating domination and more recently perished under the First World War, Van Loon said ‘As long as there is life, there is hope. But it is a mighty slender one’
He can’t witness how Greece is now mired in the debt crisis but as the birthplace of democracy, it is without question that her demos or the ‘people’ will rise up again, just like their enormous strength against the Persian Empire.
In Van Loon ‘s Geography: A Story of the World, we are offered a personal tour by a knowledgeable witty scholar to travel around the world.