January 07, 2005

Some excerpts from Robert Kaplan's "An Empire Wilderness"

I have read every cotton-pickin' word that Robert Kaplan has ever wrote. It began with Balkan Ghosts, which changed my life. On multiple levels. It opened my eyes, it opened my mind, and it also made me think: "Damn, I've got to read Rebecca West's book some day." Last year, I finally did - and I am pretty much forever changed from the experience.

So. There's that.

The next book of his I read is, perhaps, my favorite. I've read it ... uhm ... 5 times? It is called The Ends of the Earth : From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers ofAnarchy. Oh, baby. Take me to the frontiers of anarchy.

He hit it HUGE with Balkan Ghosts - and the guy had been around for quite some time before that, writing fantastic columns for The Atlantic Monthly, all of which I have read.

Once Balkan Ghosts hit, they (the infamous "they") re-issued all of his older books. Which, naturally, I tracked down, and read. Like a voracious lunatic.

They are:

Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Surrender or Starve : Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea


I have read 'em all.

He continues to write great thought-provoking pieces at Atlantic Monthly and comes out with a new book pretty much every year. All of them ROCK.

The Coming Anarchy : Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (Brace yourself. This book is rough. I had nightmares after reading this book.)

Eastward to Tartary : Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (Am I insane, or is there just something so romantic and beautiful about the word "Tartary". It conjures up all these incredible images in my brain.)

Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos

All of these I have read. The guy is living my dream-life, frankly, and I resent him for that. But I still want to learn. One of the things I enjoy very much about his writing is its lack of dogma. He most certainly has opinions about how the world is going, based on all that he has seen ... but his books (the travel books, especially) are all about sitting down with the people who actually live in these countries, and asking them questions, and drinking wine with them, and hanging out. He makes you feel like you are THERE. And with certain regions, poverty-struck areas in West Africa for example, you never want to actually go there yourself. But he gives you a window into that world. The smells, the sights, the sounds, what he sees on the street ...

I do not take the dude's word for gospel, although I admire him tremendously.

There is something about his writing style that just hooks me in, and doesn't let me go. The insights he comes up with, too, are quite often unexpected and startling. He's a pessimist, I would say. And yet, somehow, he avoids cynicism. This is an attitude I can completely relate to. I understand pessimism, it seems like a rational response to things, very often - but I can't stand cynicism. It goes up my ass, to be honest.

Anyway, I've posted a couple of excerpts below from Kaplan's book An Empire Wilderness : Travels into America's Future. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Robert Kaplan gets in his car and drives through the American West - up, down, east, west - treating his own country with the same curiosity and intelligence that he treated the Balkans. He is able (in my opinion) to look at things, and see beneath the surface. You may disagree with some of his conclusions, you may not like some of his conclusions, but that's not the point.

Robert Kaplan helps me to try to SEE stuff, on my own. Look at the surface of things, and try to make sense, find patterns, put stuff together using examples from history. I am nowhere near as good at it as he is ... but he is, indeed, a very good teacher.

He's got a new book out, about traveling through the Mediterranean one winter. He's one of the few writers out there who I literally feel impatient to hear from again, if too much time goes by.

Good good stuff.

The excerpts below are lengthy - many of this stuff was already printed in The Atlantic Monthly, before being put into the book.

If you like what you read, or if you're intrigued, I urge you strongly to pick up any one of the books up there I mentioned.

Posted by sheila

Thanks for reminding me Red... I really want to read ARABISTS - but I keep forgetting about it.

I also want to read EMPIRE WILDERNESS, but I don't know that Kaplan has a lot to tell me about the United States.

He's a brilliant writer and I'm a huge fan, but he lives in a sort of fishbowl: the "Kaplan's World Fishbowl". His version of things is less compelling to me when he's talking my own aquarium.

Posted by: CW at January 7, 2005 08:40 PM

Having done a cross-country road trip, lasting 2 months, and having gone to many of the places Kaplan described - I was glad to have read the book. I had the same experience of the Great Plains that he described - but I didn't know the history, the CONTEXT, if you will.

Granted, like you said, it is the Kaplan Fishbowl context - but it's still, usually, an interesting launching-off point.

Posted by: red at January 8, 2005 10:25 AM

Oh, and Arabists is okay. It's definitely an interesting STORY, but he hasn't really found his stride as a writer yet. (in my wee opinion)

Posted by: red at January 8, 2005 01:24 PM