Don't Know Much About Geography by Kenneth C. Davis

William Morrow and Company 1992 384 pp. $23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Where does all the water go at low tide? Like many people, I didn't have the slightest idea, making it a refreshing experience to dip into Kenneth C. Davis' Don't Know Much About Geography, where my question was answered with wit and erudition.

Davis instructs us on how a blend of chauvinism, xenophobia, and powerful ignorance combined to create our contemporary world maps. With respect to geographic knowledge, adult Americans ranked sixth, or third-to-last among industrialized nations, while eighteen to twenty-four year olds finished dead last. While Davis' book won't make too much of a dent in our ignorance, at least he tries to make learning about the earth and stars fun.

For example, did you know that "virtually the whole continent of South America lies east of Savannah, Georgia?" Or that, far from being a concern of contemporary tree-huggers, "In 1896, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius coined the phrase `greenhouse effect' and predicted that the burning of fossil fuels would increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and lead to a warming of the world's climate?"

Davis hops from one subject to the next like oil on a hot plate. He explains how the Amazon river got its name. Amazon is the Greek word for breastless: they were a race of brave female warriors who cut off one of their breasts to carry their shields and draw their bows with greater ease. Spanish conquistadors encountered fierce women warriors near the mouth of the Amazon river and named it accordingly. Adding weight to this fantasy was the local Indians' name for the river, Amazunu ("big wave").

The list continues. What do you technically call Antarctica and Greenland? Deserts. "Specifically, a desert is an area that receives less than ten inches of precipitation a year. Deserts may not be hot, but they are dry." But it's the Chilean Atacama Desert that has the distinction of being the driest place on Earth. "In 1971, it received rain for the first time in four hundred years."

What's the difference between a cyclone, a hurricane, and a typhoon? Geography. "Hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones are all the same kind of violent storm originating over warm ocean waters and called by different names all over the world."

Far from simply being about geography, this book leaps from meteorology, to astronomy, to oceanography, scarcely pausing to draw a breath. Davis has emptied his desk drawer of facts, and they fell into this often haphazard collection of information about us, our planet, and our solar system. While there is hardly a sustained argument propelling this book forward, readers will be entertained by Davis' charming explanation of how we got this way, geographically-speaking.

I almost forgot: the moon's gravity creates bulges on the Earth-both the side facing the moon and the opposite side. As the moon orbits, these bulges travel around the earth. Tides.