Gideon Defoe, An Atlas of Extinct Countries (2021)

Author: Gideon Defoe

Title: An Atlas of Extinct Countries

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 304

Series: –

First, let’s celebrate: our 501st post and 501 followers over seven years of blogging! Thanks, guys, for being with us!!! πŸ˜€

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Secondly… Sorry to celebrate with a review of this particular book, but, alas, it can’t be helped πŸ˜‰

You know this habit some people have, reading in the toilet? I won’t discuss the lack of hygiene of this solution to the WC boredom, but I want to point out that some people even have special books filled with fun facts waiting in the toilet just for the right time. It can be a short or a long visit, and you’ll never fail to learn a thing or two (provided you take care to wash your hands, or else you’ll learn more than you’ve bargained for about E. coli). They cointain mostly useless but nevertheless briefly interesting bits of wisdom such as the name of the fear of clowns (coulrophobia, for those curious). These books are intentionally light, nonsensical and fluffy, and usually made on a surprisingly good paper. I suspect that they possibly have a second function, if the toilet paper suddenly runs out.

Defoe’s book is just like that.

Don’t get me wrong. It can be fun in small doses. But the incessant chattery and artificially snappy tone started grating on my nerves after a couple pages, and the sad thing is, it never stopped. I guess that’s a positive thing in your average toilet book – after all, you don’t want to spend too much time in the WC – but as I didn’t read it in the toilet… well, let’s say it took me inordinate amount of time, in small, carefully dosed increments, to read this.

At first I was even mildly amused. I mean, it’s a cool idea, to talk about the countries that once were, or never were, to tell the stories of how such a thing as country even emerges. But Defoe has a very clear agenda here, which is to not think, but deride, point fingers, and generally indulge in gossip, in order to shore up his thesis that

“countries are just daft stories we tell each other. They’re all equally implausible once you get up close.”

I’ll give him that: he wrote the whole book just for the purpose of proving his thesis. Talk about dedication. The problem is, though, that while I don’t completely disagree with this thesis, I also cannot endorse it. Implausibility of a country stems from a fact that it is a grand social make-believe experiment. It’s at once wondrous and appalling, and incredibly fascinating. But Defoe doesn’t see any of that – he only sees failed ideas and scams and get-rich-quick schemes. And blatant cherrypicking in order to say “I told you so” is the worst type of sin in what is supposed to be a non-fiction publication.

Once again, I’m at least partially guilty of my predicament: I took the publisher’s words at face value. I expected an interesting insight into the various fascinating nation-state or ethnic entities that at different points in time existed, then stopped being, or still are in a non-state state – Prussia, for example, or Scotland, or Basque Country. What I got instead was a handful of snarky anecdotes about scammers and power-hungry despots, stupid Texians, the tale of Libertalia and Richard Feynman on his lifelong quest to visit Tuva (well, at least this anecdote was interesting!). The author researched the flags and anthems of the various ephemeral states he chose to show, and he made his little nifty maps, and I’m sure he spent a lot of time polishing his unbearably snarky tone of superiority. But the fact that Defoe has really no idea about the things he writes became painfully clear the moment I hit the pages about Crimea in 2014. Man, I know it’s not the author’s fault that Putin invaded Ukraine in February and now everybody is issuing lengthy analyses on the topic, but the total lack of knowledge with which he describes the situation and history of Crimea is really criminal. He should’ve stuck to Napoleon on Elba and the Republic of Cospaia (although, to be fair, Wikipedia has a better page about it).

What can I say? If you’re really pressed in your toilet, you may make some use of this book. Otherwise, not recommended.

Score: 2/10

I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.Β 

25 thoughts on “Gideon Defoe, An Atlas of Extinct Countries (2021)

  1. I’ve never been a fan of bathroom books. If you’re in there long enough to read, you’re doing something wrong. It should be like a military operation. Get in, do your business, get out.

    I would have liked this book based on its title but with what is actually contained I’ll take a hard pass.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. LOL, I never had them in my bathroom either, but I do know people who do πŸ˜‰

      Exactly! The title and the blurb are so catchy, and then you get… this. (I heroically abstained from another bathroom-related joke here 🀣)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed my review, Maddalena! πŸ˜ƒ I do hope it was funnier than the book itself, because the book was not funny at all πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚ The paper is thick and good quality, though! 🀣

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hehe too bad. The topic is interesting. I read a similar book a few years ago, but it was much more serious. It was Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms; The History of Half-Forgotten Europe. I have a review on my site. That book also had its flaws and was long and tough to get through, and all of Davies’s holiday notes, but probably much more academic and more interesting than Defoe’s toilet book.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like Davies; his style can be plodding but he’s reliable and he knows what he’s writing about. I haven’t read Vanished Kingdoms, but I’ll definitely take a look at your review – thanks for the rec, Jeroen! πŸ˜€


  3. Lol I really enjoyed reading your review. It’s the most delightful thing I’ve done today. Thanks for that.
    I was interested in the book at first because of the title, but, based on your review, it certainly isn’t what I thought it would be. I would want something a bit more serious, although I don’t mind snarky books about history and such, but too much would turn me off too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Zezee! Definitely, writing this review was the most enjoyable part of the whole experience πŸ˜‰ I was quite sad this read turned out to be so mediocre – I was actually looking forward to learning something about this subject πŸ™‚


  4. Yikes! This sure does sound awful. Based on your thoughts, it sure does contain way too much snark for its own good, and I also understand that this would, however, make for an excellent pooping read. Not sure if it’s ideal for the reading bit of the activity or the cleaning bit… I’d bet on the latter. πŸ˜› Great thoughts, Ola!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lashaan!
      Yeah, this was decidedly not among the best reading experiences of this year πŸ˜‰ Fortunately, though, it was a library book, so I don’t need to see it anymore (or use it, in any way ;)) – it was returned intact, in case you were wondering!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Worst of 2022 – Re-enchantment Of The World

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