AN ATLAS OF EXTINCT COUNTRIES
By Gideon Defoe
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Growing up, I owned an atlas that was published between World War I and World War II. I was intrigued to look through the atlas at the parts of the countries that had ceased to exist. Gideon Defoe has a similar fascination with countries that are no longer around, which he indulges in An Atlas of Extinct Countries. The book contains several short outlines of countries that existed, sometimes for a short time, sometimes for centuries, that can only be found on modern maps in their remnants located in modern countries.
The book is divided into four sections, sorting the various nations Defoe is looking at into categories such as "Mistakes and Micronations" or "Lies and Lost Kingdoms." Within each of these sections, he provides brief entries on 48 countries, opening with a table showing the country's name, population, capital, language, "cause of death," where it is today, and sometimes currency. These charts are accompanied by maps of the region that are also illustrated with the country's flags (where applicable) and other graphics aligned with the countries. Defoe then gives a brief explanation of what the country was, how it came to be, and what happened to it, all in the course of a couple of short paragraphs.
Defoe's descriptions are brief, barely an introduction each of the countries. While this might be appropriate for the Ottawa Civic Hospital Maternity War, which existed as a legal fiction for a couple of hours on January 19, 1943, it feels lacking for The Most Serene Republic of Venice, which existed for 1,100 years. At their best, Defoe's descriptions should be seen as appetizers that can lead the reader to look for greater information about the political entities Defoe is describing. The book is designed to offer a quick overview of lost nations and Defoe succeeds with that.
These descriptions are written in an entertaining, often snarky manner. He notes the seeming importance of flag design for new countries, often taking place before there is any governmental infrastructure. He draws parallels to the downfalls of some of the countries with the modern world (and in doing so seems to not particularly like Boris Johnson). His tone keeps the work upbeat and fast moving, on top of the brief looks at the different countries. Not able to fit everything he has to say into the short paragraphs describing each country, many of them often include explanatory footnotes, for instance noting that people fleeces by someone named "Boston Slicker Ravine" may have deserved it or describing the observatory at Cheomseongdae as "a hole to look out of."
One of the odder choices Defoe made in compiling his atlas is the decision to use what3words to indicate location more than the traditional latitude and longitude. Proponents of what3words claim that it can give more precise and accurate locations than addresses or latitude or longitude, which it can, but it requires the user to access their database. Saying a country is located at slippers.sponge.porridge doesn't provide any clue to its location, whereas stating it as located at 39o 38' 23.7582" N, 66o 56' 13.1022" E tells the user the location is about 1/3rds of the way from the equator to the North Pole and 1/6 of the way around the globe from the Prime Meridian, even if the reader can't quite place it as in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Since most countries don't need to be located as precisely as the 3 meter square what3words provides, the decision to include the information seems to be obfuscatory.
In the end, An Atlas of Extinct Countries is a pleasant way to explore a world that no longer exists and offers the reader a chance to wonder about worlds that might have been, what makes a country successful, and why flags are so important. The book is meant at a light hearted look at a topic which can range from the ludicrous to the serious and Defoe handles the material well. The reader who wants more detailed information can easily expand on the summaries Defoe provides with a quick Google search, but An Atlas of Extinct Countries provides and excellent starting place.
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