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.
... not a polemic, as much as one might sometimes wish it were. Like a lot of journalists-turned-historians, Winchester is a quick study, and there is an astounding amount of information in Land, much of it revealing, although it can also feel somewhat random. As he roams his seemingly boundless terrain, Winchester provides us with set piece after set piece. And yet, despite the epic continents-and-centuries scale he tries to take on, his approach at its best is often miniaturist, as it has been with perhaps greater success in some of his previous books ... most if not all of the people in the book end up becoming symbols, and we can never really grasp how they all interconnect. Personalizing history can sometimes make it more remote, not less ... You can’t help learning a lot from a well-researched book like this, though some of the material may be familiar from other accounts ... despite Winchester’s evident sympathy toward dispossessed Native Americans, which serves as a kind of leitmotif throughout Land, there are too many sentences that could have come out of a high school textbook ... Without a real thesis or overarching theme driving it, Land does not quite come together. It can often be hard to discern why the reader is being told a particular story. Sometimes, though, it is when Winchester is at his least colorful and most reportorial that the connections he is trying to make between the past and the present come through vividly.
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.