The prolific popular history author explores the notion of property—man's proprietary relationship with the land—and how it has shaped peoples and civilizations and tells us something about the future.
... engrossing ... With his unique blend of wide-eyed curiosity, meticulous research, and erudite analysis, Winchester weaves a tapestry that encompasses nearly every element involved in the concept of 'land' ... Land abounds with dozens of eye-opening factoids to please any fan of popular history ... But this is no mere bathroom book packed with intriguing facts. His storytelling talents on full display, Winchester convincingly demonstrates that, as the subtitle notes, land and ownership have indeed 'shaped the modern world.' Those kinds of sweeping pronouncements are an unfortunately bombastic, exaggerated element of countless nonfiction subtitles but, in this case, it holds true ... Though relevant, Winchester’s examination of the disruptive enclosure and clearance movements in rural England and Scotland is probably the book’s least interesting section. However, it’s a rare dull moment in an otherwise entertaining book, exemplified in three standout chapters ... Winchester’s colorfully rendered capsule biographies help to convey the gravity of certain historical milestones ... Winchester is, once again, a consummate guide.
Winchester is good at...adding dashes of drama, narrative, indignation and, above all, connection to disparate historical accounts. He does the same with the brutal dispossession of native populations in North America ... Given the scope of his project, portions of Land are inevitably fleeting—quick visits to multiple regions and countries and conflicts, and a tendency to reduce everything to a dispute over the soil rather than, say, the soul ... Yet there is soul in this book ... Just beneath the surface of Land is a tension between the benevolent stewardship of land for the enjoyment of all...and the compulsion to possess and enclose, to clear and exclude ... a stirring call for communal imperatives, even if its history recounts the constant allure of private ownership.
Winchester is a master at capturing the Old World wonder and romance of exploits like Struve’s ... his prose frequently exudes the comfort and charm of a beloved encyclopedia come to life, centuries and continents abutting through the pages ... Winchester’s nostalgia leads him to skate over the involvement of cartographers, surveyors, and other diligent functionaries in the inner workings of conquest and empire ... In fact, American surveyors in charge of delineating the U.S. border with Mexico were decidedly less apolitical about their task than Winchester proposes ... As Winchester enters the twentieth century, he begins to grapple more directly with the enduring violence wrought by casual imperial boundary-making ... Winchester’s wide-angle view mostly gets the big-picture history right—the narrative arc of expulsion and exploitation—but when he zooms in he is often unable to resist the register of grand adventure ... Even as Winchester dutifully recognizes the 'shameful' and 'repellent' treatment of America’s Indigenous population, he tosses up odd quips and cheeky asides ... Winchester’s account is further undermined by a failure to capture the ongoing nature of many of his chosen histories ... Land vividly depicts the brutal enclosures that took place in Scotland at the beginning of the nineteenth century ... As Winchester gallops back and forth through history, he too often seems content to assemble an eccentric cast of characters without saying much about the systems that have empowered them ... even as he discusses the adoption of coöperative-friendly legislation in places like the Scottish Isles, he criticizes the political unpleasantness that has been necessary to achieve it. On the whole, he seems rather disengaged from the messier, more radical elements of resistance that often precede meaningful change.