September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Africa: A Biography of the Continent

By |2018-03-21T18:17:49+01:00June 10th, 2008|Recent Reviews|

By John Reader

Vintage, 1999. 816 pages.


nyone wondering why Africa is such a mess should read this book, especially those who think that forgiving that misspent debt is all it takes (You too, Bono and sorry for the pun). The title seems cute, until you realize that this truly is a biography. It begins with its subjects birth, Africa’s, geological origins and goes from there. Why did life, human and otherwise begin here? And why did it develop the way it did? On the way to the imperialist exploitation, which is the pat explanation of Africa’s difficulties, Reader piles on cosmologic, genetic, paleontologic, economic and historic information. All of it is interesting and, despite its vast range, relevant.

The book is a generalist and a relativist’s feast, with bonus lessons on evolution and biological economics. Reader is a good writer, which is not faint praise, and he has the gift for revealing complexity while never succumbing to it. The complexity it boils down to the biggest and best demonstration this writer has ever seen that geography is indeed destiny.

This is not a book of simple theses and ideological simple solutions. You make think you know about the slave trade, for example, but Reader’s information shakes all your preconceptions. What do you say about “good” leaders — African and American — whose power and resulting influence, however benign ultimately, derived from centuries of slave trade? Reader is pro-Africa and anti- all the bad things that have been done to it; he loves the place so he could not be any other way. And like any good lover, he loves the faults as much as the beauties.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."